1984 Honor: The Sign of the Beaver

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver is a story of survival and friendship among two vastly different cultures. When his father leaves one day on family business, twelve-year-old Matt is suddenly left alone to guard their cabin in the wilderness with no weapons and having no way to hunt for food. With his father gone for longer than expected, Matt begins to develop a friendship with Attean, a boy from the local Beaver clan, and begins to learn about the Native American way of life in exchange for teaching Attean how to read.

The growing friendship between the two young boys lends this children’s book some gravitas that takes it beyond a simple survival tale. Despite coming from two completely different cultures, they bond over their enjoyment of a Robinson Crusoe book and their misconceptions of each other begin to be challenged.

The harshness of the settler lifestyle is intriguing to read about, as Matt is put into dangerous situations like trying to figure out if he can trust a stranger who wants to stay the night in his cabin or finding ways to deal with the constant fear of wild animals potentially getting into his food stores or attacking him.

The only really negative thing about the book was that I felt the Indian tribe was written in a very stereotypical way and may not be as historically accurate or nuanced as it could have been. Despite this, it was nice to see a Newbery Honor book paint Native American interactions with white settlers in a positive light, unlike The Matchlock Gun and Daniel Boone, as well as the author’s melancholic foreshadowing of the continual takeover of Indian land and how that affected Indian tribes. The ending highlights these ideas to great effect as it ends on a bittersweet note with Matt forced to choose one life over the other.

Overall, this is a decent survival story with characters that are easy to sympathize with. Young readers will be able to identify with Matt’s struggles while also introducing them to how settlers and Native Americans interacted and lived in the 18th century.

 

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1980 Honor: The Road From Home – The Story of an Armenian Girl

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

In the 1980 Newbery Honor, The Road From Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl, author David Kherdian retells his mother’s story of surviving the Armenian Genocide.

The book begins with the early years of Veron, who grows up among a respected upper class family. When the Armenian Genocide begins in 1915, Veron and her family are deported and forced out of their homes by the Turkish government. After years of trying to survive and escape the atrocities done to her people, Veron eventually leaves for American as a mail-order bride and hopes for a brighter future.

The book reads very much like a memoir. Veron is shown to be a strong and courageous person and is forced to survive incredible hardships and suffering. Her strength is, without a doubt, the highlight of this piece. The genocide that is depicted is chilling and horrible to read about, but somehow I found my attention drifting throughout the story as the writing style lacked a sense of urgency and true horror. On top of that, it was hard to connect with the characters as the narrative stilted the character’s emotions and development.

For those interested in learning more about Armenian culture and this historical era, this book has a lot to offer. On the other hand, if you are looking for a compelling narrative, don’t bother with this book, as it is a bit of a disappointment.

2006 Honor: Whittington (a cat tale)

VERDICT: 2.5/5

Sally’s Rating: Trash

Whittington by Alan Armstrong is a classic cat tale – full of warmth, humor and history.

This Newbery Honor winning tale follows Whittington, a scruffy tomcat who arrives one day at a barn full of rescued animals and asks for a place to stay. To earn his keep, he narrates the story of his 16th century ancestor, the nameless cat of a boyish Dick Whittington – the man who would eventually become a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London.

A secondary subplot follows the two grandchildren of the landowner. Abby’s brother Ben struggles with dyslexia and has been warned by the school principal that if his reading skills do not improve, he cannot pass his current grade. Through Whittington’s influence, everyone finds ways to try to encourage Ben to become a better reader.

Overall, I found this book to be a bit of a disappointment. Most of the story takes place in the past through the cat’s narration of the events surrounding the true-to-life Dick Whittington, and when juxtaposed with the dyslexia storyline, makes for an all-over-the-place thematic narrative. The best parts of the book follow the cat’s humorous attempts to cull the rat problem in the barn and his honest discussions with the duck that is in charge. Otherwise, it’s a slow muddle through a book that has no enticing plot to grab the reader’s attention.

If looking for a book with talking animal characters, take a pass on this one. No doubt there are more engaging stories out there that feature cats, rats and geese for readers to indulge in.

 

 

Non-Newbery: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

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VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is a delightful illustrated biography of Ada Lovelace. Lovelace is often considered the first computer programmer. This title focuses primarily on her early years. Ada’s mother was surprisingly supportive of her strong interest in math and science, obtaining some of the best tutors possible. It was also striking how Ada used the real world as inspiration, learning and making scientific leaps through observation and analysis. As Ada grew older, she was given the opportunity to interact with some of the leading mathematicians of her day, including Charles Babbage. She collaborated with Babbage, who had created the Analytical Engine, a very early multi-purpose computer. Ada wrote an algorithm for the Engine, which, when tested many years later, worked nearly flawlessly.

Besides being a beautiful book, this would be a great read-together book for young kids. Ada gets to play in the mud and do lots of other fun things, but learns a lot while doing it. She runs with what she is interested in and dives deeply into the subjects she cares about, even if they weren’t considered appropriate for a girl. I loved this title and would recommend it to just about anyone.

 

1931 Honor: Meggy MacIntosh

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

Meggy MacIntosh, one of the 1931 Newbery Honor titles, is a historical fiction novel featuring the title character. After the death of her father, a Scottish Highland lord, Meggy moves in with her relatives in Edinburgh. She always feels superfluous. Although she adores her slightly older and infinitely more glamorous cousin, Meggy doesn’t fit. In a bold move, Meggy decides to follow her heroine, Flora MacDonald, to America.

Although some ruckus ensues when Meggy fools her cousin’s beau Ewan into taking Meggy instead of Veronica, Meggy makes many friends on her sea voyage. When she lands in Wilmington, North Carolina, she quickly finds a place with a local merchant family. Meggy is discouraged that Flora MacDonald has moved to the backcountry, and has a long wait to find her.

The tensions that would eventually erupt into the American Revolution are already simmering when Meggy arrives. Years are rarely/never mentioned, but the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, mentioned close to the end of the book, took place in February 1776. Meggy herself is torn in loyalty. Her heroine, Flora MacDonald, is busy gathering an army of Scots to support the Crown; many of the Scots in North Carolina had survived the disastrous Battle of Culloden and vowed to be on the winning side of this conflict. However, as Meggy spends more time in America, she falls in love with the opportunities it represents.

Meggy splits her time between Wilmington and a plantation, where she is a companion to Miss Cameron and helps instruct the younger child in Latin. Miss Cameron sends Meggy to carry a travel authorization to a local Tory couple who are fleeing back to England. While there, Meggy buys the indenture of Tibbie, a strong Scottish girl Meggy met on the sea voyage, to prevent Tibbie from being sold to an awful man. She also gets a horse and a riding habit out of the deal. Eventually, David Malcolm, a cousin of the Wilmington family with whom Meggy mostly stayed, sends word that Flora’s son-in-law will be in Wilmington. Another harrowing journey ensues, with Meggy taking ill with a fever about when they reach Cross Creek. Meggy stays with the Malcolm family there, fitting in perfectly and feeling useful for one of the first times in her life. She does join Flora MacDonald for a time, but returns to the Malcolms when Mrs. Malcolm is injured. A visit from Ewan, who has fallen for Meggy and wants to take her back to Scotland where he has inherited the family fortune, crystallizes her attachment to America and to the Revolution. Both the MacDonalds and Malcolms march off to battle, on opposite sides; the Whigs win and none of the Malcolm clan is injured.

The Good: Meggy is a proactive heroine. She doesn’t wait for things to happen to her but makes opportunities for herself. Although she mostly works within her gender role (lots of the activities are nursing people, mending clothes for the men, supervising slaves, etc.), Meggy doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind and make her own decisions.

The Bad: This reads like a fairly standard “plucky girl” historical fiction book, though at least Meggy isn’t married off in the end. Every risky decision Meggy takes turns out perfectly for her, which…yeah. Unlikely.

The Ugly: Holy racism, Batman. Just about every derogatory or negative word that could be applied to the African and African-American slave population is. The language is enough to pop me out of the story. Besides words like the n word, darkie, kink-haired, etc., the descriptors are also incredibly negative. The slaves are lazy, stupid, can’t be left unsupervised, etc. I suspect this is an amalgamation of what attitudes actually were in the 1770’s and what they were when this was written in the 1930’s.

It’s not a terrible read – the pacing is pretty good and the character development adequate. I’d tentatively recommend it for about grades 4-6, to those who are interested in historical fiction set near the American Revolution. However, there are better titles available for general reading.

 

1984 Honor: A Solitary Blue (Heron, or Boy)

VERDICT: Meh

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

A Solitary Blue, one of the 1984 Newbery Honor selections, is set in the same universe as Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, the 1983 Newbery Medal Winner, reviewed by Sally and I. It follows Jeffrey from roughly ages 6-17. A Solitary Blue focuses heavily on relationships and emotions. When Jeff is in early elementary school, his vivacious mother Melody, always involved superficially in a cause, walks out for the final time, leaving Jeff with his very reserved father. Jeff always calls his father The Professor. Jeff decides that homeostasis is the way to go, so as he grows up, he increasingly takes on the task of keeping everything neat and orderly for The Professor.

When Jeff is in middle school, he comes down with a bad case of pneumonia. His father doesn’t initially realise he is sick; it takes the intervention of kind family freed Brother Brian to knock The Professor out of his shell. The illness also leads to renewed contact between Melody and the family she left behind, including an invitation for Jeff to spend the summer with her in Charleston.

The first summer Jeff spends in Charleston is freeing. His emotional mother helps him express himself fully. Jeff is immersed in the luxury which his extended family’s income affords them, while still having the freedom to go exploring the city. The transition back to life with his reserved father is challenging. With the memory of the first summer, Jeff has high hopes for another one. However, things are much different. His mother is dismissive of him or away with her boyfriend much of the time, his older relatives are hateful, and the experience is unpleasant. On one of the last nights Jeff has there, he has a knockdown fight in which his mother verbally destroys him, to which he responds somewhat in kind. Jeff is overwrought and takes the boat he purchased earlier in the summer out to an island he had been exploring. He finally finds a bit of solace in a solitary blue heron.

Life isn’t much better when he gets home, as he feels incredibly betrayed by his mother; he takes to skipping school. This actually provides an opening for a growing relationship with his father once The Professor discovers what’s going on; the two bond over mutual hurt. At his dad’s suggestion, the two look for a new house and find a lovely cabin, sealed with the presence of a blue heron.

Although not always easy – his mother claims she’s going to sue for custody when his parent’s divorce is finalized, for example – Jeff makes friends in his new home, including with the Tillerman family from Dicey’s Song. It comes as a surprise to Jeff when his great grandmother leaves him the estate. He chooses to keep her engagement ring but pass the rest along to the former household staff. His final interaction with his capricious and manipulative mother is when she arrives asking about the ring. To be quits of her, he trades rings with her, keeping the one that is tied to family history while allowing her the monetarily valuable one.

This is not an easy book to read. I basically alternated which parent I wanted to scream at initially. My heart broke for Jeff at times, particularly when his mother deliberately attempted to manipulate him. It deals a lot with emotions and relationships and less so with action. The author’s character development keeps it from being a complete snore, but it’s still a pretty angsty book. I went through a phase when I was in middle school when this over-the-top angst might have appealed. As an adult, it was a bit much. However, I appreciated the book for dealing with some of the hard parts of both severing and establishing relationships, as well as the author’s lovely description of the natural beauty which soothed Jeff’s soul. It’s not bad, but neither do I recommend it highly.

2006 Honor: Show Way

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson is a children’s book which tells the history of Woodson’s family; it situates members in their historical context and does a great job of showing how individuals make history.

The story begins before the Civil War, with a great grandmother’s great grandmother. She made quilts to help escaping slaves follow the Underground Railroad. They called these Show Ways, because they showed the way to a particular destination. If you’d like to learn more about this, National Geographic has an interesting article on it. Through generations, the women in the family continued to find inspiration in quilting. Quilt squares helped calm and reassure two aunts who participated in the 1960’s struggles for Civil Rights. Despite how much the author’s life has changed from that of her predecessors, quilting, together with the drive to read and write shared by more recent generations, helps tie together the past and present.

Honestly, the pictures are the real star of this book. I’ve posted a number of them, like this to our Tumblr. The history heavy panels use a lovely collage/mural of pictures and newspaper articles talking about the event, with illustrations of the relevant character standing in front of the mural. The quilts included are very colorful; I particularly love an illustration towards the end that integrates the text of the entire book into a quilt square.

This Newbery Honor winner is aimed at younger children, probably about kindergarten age. For me, this was worth picking up primarily for the pictures. The story is fine and absolutely one that should be told; it just didn’t grab me as strongly as the images.