2011 Honor: Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Joyce Sidman’s Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night is a collection of poetry that details the lives of the animals, plants and insects that thrive in the forest during the nighttime.

Each poem follows a different nighttime creature – owls, trees, moths, mushrooms, bats and crickets, just to name a few. The poetry is also accompanied by colorful illustrations drawn by illustrator Rick Allen and a small blurb that introduces readers to some scientific facts.

My favorite poems were both cute and wielded some fun word play. In “Welcome to the Night,” nighttime creatures are slowly awakening from the daytime nap. “Dark Emperor” deftly details the terror of a mouse that is hoping to get away sight unseen from a great horned owl. My favorite, though, was “I Am a Baby Porcupette,” where the nocturnal animal baby can still deal with any threat despite being small and cute.

This book was a quick read with some simplistic and lyrical poetry. While I didn’t find the poems to be great works of art, Dark Emperor is a fun way to introduce children to the creepy crawlies of the night and enhance their knowledge of animal and botany trivia.

2012 Honor: Breaking Stalin’s Nose – Advice from a talking nose

Laurinda’s Verdict: Treasure

Rating: 4/5

As you might suspect, given the title, 2012 Newbery Honor Breaking Stalin’s Nose is set in the USSR during the 1950’s. Our main character, Sasha Zaichik, is very excited that he will get to join the Young Pioneers; his father works for State Security and will be the one to induct him at a school assembly. However, Sasha’s life is thrown into disarray when his father is unexpectedly arrested during the night. Sasha runs to his aunt’s like he was told, only to have her husband tell Sasha to get lost. After a cold night spent in the boiler room, Sasha heads off to school.

What was supposed to be a happy day for him is now fraught. Sasha is constantly worried that someone will find out about his father’s arrest. Eventually, he is sent down to the basement to retrieve the banner for the Young Pioneers assembly. While bringing it upstairs, he bumps into the statue of Stalin, dislodging its nose. Fear of the consequences causes him to hallucinate Stalin’s nose talking to him.

When his class is called to answer for the crime of damaging the statue, one of Sasha’s classmates, who believes his parents are already imprisoned, claims that he did the damage, hoping to be reunited with them. After some hijinks, the class bully, whose parents were previously arrested, frames their teacher for the crime.

State Security first tries to recruit Sasha as a mole and then attempts to send the boys to an orphanage. Sasha runs to the prison to attempt to see his father. While in the multi-day queue, he meets a woman who offers her son’s cot. The end.

The author grew up in Soviet Russia and this infuses his work. He perfectly captures the sense of paranoia pervading society; he also traces the enthusiasm, and later disillusionment, of the main character. No one in the USSR was safe from the secret police. A neighbor turns Sasha’s father in to get the pair’s better living space; another classmate frames a hated teacher to get her removed from power, etc. Although we don’t see Sasha become too bitter, he is transformed from a blind little parrot of good indoctrinated values to a child who begins to see through the propaganda. The author creates some very poignant – and depressing – moments. My favorites, if you can call them that: The parents of the classmate hoping to go to jail to see them were previously executed; Sasha’s mother, an American, was executed and didn’t die at the hospital like he was told. So on and so forth. Combined with perfect illustrations, Breaking Stalin’s Nose presents a moving, grimly amusing, yet historically accurate portrayal of the 1950’s USSR.

I highly recommend this, particularly to fans of historical fiction. Mid to late elementary school or early middle school  would probably have the most interest, though the beautiful illustrations and plucky main character make this well worth reading for other ages.

1922 Honor: The Windy Hill

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1.5/5

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs was anything but a breezy read. Oliver and his sister, Janet, spend the summer with their cousin, Jasper, but end up solving a mystery that is connected to their family history. When Oliver finds that somebody is harassing his cousin about property claims, he takes an interest in the local area’s history and befriends the local storyteller, the Beeman.

The Beeman’s stories are interspersed throughout the novel, and surprisingly, are some of the best parts of The Windy Hill. If this book was just a selection of folklore, I would of graded it less harshly as the author has some skill in relating these stories in a colorful and meaningful way. The most interesting story tells of an Indian boy who is curious about what lies beyond the ocean despite his people’s distrust of the sea.

No doubt this was a thrilling adventure in the 1920s, but nowadays, this novel is a fairly slow and tedious read. The writing style feels outdated and the plot moves along at a leisurely pace. The main characters, except for the Beeman and his daughter, lack vibrant personalities.

If interested in reading The Windy Hill, you can find it for free on the internet. While I wouldn’t recommend it to young readers, it does give you an interesting glimpse into what was considered an entertaining book in the 1920s.

1990 Honor: Afternoon of the Elves

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

Afternoon of the Elves is a challenging read. It’s a wee bit hard to categorize, but I’d slot it into magical realism, with an emphasis on the realism. Hillary hangs with the popular girls at school, until one day her neighbor Sarah-Jane invites her to see the elf village. Sarah-Jane lives on the fringes of society – none of her clothes fit well, her yard is unkempt, and no one sees her parents; given this, it’s shocking that she has no friends at school. Shocking, I say!

However, her acerbic invite to Hillary begins a friendship. Sarah-Jane’s incredible imagination convinces Hillary that there is a real elf village in Sarah-Jane’s overgrown back yard. Together, the girls make elf houses, construct a Ferris wheel, build a well, and put together other improvements for the elves.

Their relationship is troubled from the get-go. Sarah-Jane sometimes snaps for no reason. Then, she disappears from school. At first, Hillary believes the official story that Sarah-Jane has gone on a trip, but a chance encounter between Hillary’s father and Sarah-Jane breaks open that lie. Worried about her friend, Hillary sneaks over to her house to check on her, and enters when she finds an unlocked door. Inside, the house is nearly empty and freezing cold. As she creeps upstairs, Hillary swears there are elves in the house, even after she sees Sarah-Jane comforting her mother.

Although Sarah-Jane is initially upset at this invasion of privacy, she and Hillary soon reconcile. Hillary picks up feed for Sarah-Jane, snagging some money from her mom and shop lifting an item or two. Shortly thereafter, Hillary goes to spend lunch with Sarah-Jane on a snow day. She takes too long returning home, and her mother comes look. This leads to the discovery of Sarah-Jane’s situation, and the attendant chaos.

Sarah-Jane is removed from the house, apparently to live with relatives after a brief stint in an orphanage; her mother is sent to a facility. Hillary never sees either again, though she still feels the elf magic and salvages the elf village when Sarah-Jane’s home is being rehabbed for sale.

I’m honestly conflicted over this one. While I do think kids should read challenging books, the effort also needs to be “worth it” – backed by a strong plot. This read as a vehicle for a discussion of mental health issues and for their challenges, no matter how they’re handled. My heart broke for Sarah-Jane in both situations; no child should have to be a sole caregiver for their parent, but separation of a mother and daughter is also hard. The realistic elements were well enough executed that I did have strong opinions about characters. However, the addition of a fantasy element just made this an odd blend of moralism and fantasy, neither done well.

I can’t recommend this for many audiences. While it does accurately portray one situation in which a kid is dealing with great challenges, there are more modern, better written titles which do it better. If magical realism and social issues both appeal to you, maybe give it a try.