2017: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 2017 Newbery Medal winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, tells a story with a magical cast of characters, including an ancient witch, a friendly swamp monster, a tiny dragon, and a girl who has consumed the power of moonlight.

The premise is great. The book cleverly turns some fairy tale tropes on their head – the wicked witch is actually a loving grandmother figure, the special child is the one causing havoc with her immense powers, and the typical hero becomes a bitter man out to get misguided justice.

The first hundred pages were really strong, focusing on the witch, Xan, and her dilemma of dealing with her mistake of putting the powerful magic of moonlight into Luna, a child she saved from being sacrificed. Her interactions with Glerk and Fyrian were great to read about, but the plot loses steam halfway through once Luna loses her memories of magic. By this point, the book became a chore to get through as the scope of the narrative expands to some plot points that didn’t really interest me. The ending, however, satisfyingly ties up all the emotional character beats.

The writing style is where I took issue with this book. With the constant point of view hopping, the narrative seemed to frantically shift whenever I just started to get into the plot of a certain character, resulting in many of the characters lacking depth. The narration makes the reader feel like an observer rather than a participant in the action – which I guess imitates the storytelling style of fairy tales.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I liked that the author was experimenting with different story components that you don’t often see in children’s books, but it failed to come together in an engaging way.

Recommended for lovers of fairy tales and magical beings.

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1922 Honor: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, the runner up to the 1922 Newbery Medal, tells the epic tale of Jason and the Argonauts as they venture out on a quest to find and retrieve the mythic Golden Fleece.

The book is divided into three distinct, varying-in-quality sections. The first part covers the introduction of the heroes and the gods, the second part narrates the finding of the Golden Fleece, and the last segment meanders along with random tales of what happened to the heroes after their voyage. The main quest was entertaining enough to read with a prominent cast of legendary characters made up of Jason, Heracles, Atalanta, and Orpheus, but the final section questionably breaks away from the main quest to focus on random stories featuring the secondary characters who are not as interesting to read about when they are off on their own.

The writing style is very similar to what I’d call textbook-style mythology: it’s a straight up narrative with little character introspection. The language might be a little archaic for modern readers, but its very simplistic plot makes it accessible to those who may struggle with the style. It reads like a young person’s version of the mythology textbook that would be read in college, and its long page count makes it a chore to get through.

I’d only recommend this Newbery Honor for those who love epic quests and bigger-than-life characters. Lovers of Greek mythology will find some merit in this book as the tale is one for all ages.

1985 Honor: One-Eyed Cat (and a guilty conscience)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

One-Eyed Cat, the 1985 Newbery Honor winner, explores how the feelings of guilt and anxiety can overtake a young child’s life. In Paula Fox’s novel, young Ned secretly plays with a gun in the middle of night, intent on having fun with his new birthday present that his father confiscated from him. Things don’t go as planned, though, and he shoots at a moving shadow. When a one-eyed cat shows up at his barn the next week, Ned knows that he has done something terrible that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

While the plot never really moves along at a quick pace, the internal dialogue in Ned’s head provides some interesting insight into what it means to have to keep a constant secret of one of your worst mistakes from your own family. The novel internalizes his struggle and the feelings associated with the traumatic event he went through the night he shot the cat, and shows how his past actions influence the relationships he has with others.

Because of the subject matter, I found this book to be a depressing read. While, ultimately, the family ends up uniting at the end and Ned owns up to his terrible deed, don’t go into this book looking for a lighthearted read and cute animal bonding. The main character’s angst consumes the entirety of the book, making it rather hard to keep turning the pages when you know things will continually get worse for the main character in such a realistic  fashion. Other topics are tackled, as well, including Ned’s mother who is suffering from arthritis and the death of a family friend.

I’d recommend One-Eyed Cat to anyone who loves stories about animals bonding with humans over traumatic events and to those who are looking for a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of a guilty conscience.

2016: Last Stop on Market Street (a busy city bus ride)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Matt de la Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street takes a simple plot of a boy riding a bus with his grandma and molds it into a beautiful story about how we should be grateful for the things we have and embrace a more optimistic spirit as we go about our daily lives.

More of an illustrated book than a middle school novel, Last Stop on Market Street’s colorful pages showcase a variety of scenes and characters in a vibrant cityscape as the main character takes a bus ride through the streets and meets a bunch of people, including a man who is blind, a guitar player and a spotted dog. The grandmother, of course, points out the things a small child might miss on the bus ride and shows him a new way to see the world.

While Christian Robinson’s illustrations are the main showstopper, this children’s book has a great, inspiring message. This book is really about finding and enjoying the small things in life, even if you don’t have many worldly possessions. Through the perspective of a child, the reader can see the world through the lens of someone in wonder and awe at seeing and understanding things for the first time in their life.

Overall, Last Stop on Market Street presents an uplifting message, but the short page count makes it a forgettable Newbery Medal winner.

 

1977 Honor: Abel’s Island (of solitude)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4.5/5

In William Steig’s Abel’s Island, a mouse is whisked away from his wife in a raging flood and stuck on an island for months on end, trying to find a way to get back home. Isolated from everything he knows, Abel is forced to be creative in order to try to get across the river that is keeping him trapped while avoiding a pesky owl, befriending a forgetful frog, and surviving a harsh winter. This book is similar to the movie Cast Away, but with mice!

The plot situates Abel in an isolated position – an island where he has no contact with any of his friends. As a result, Abel’s Island is an introspective novel that lets readers ponder how loneliness can physically and mentally affect a person. Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder for Abel as he continuously has to come up with more creative ways to get himself across the river as he becomes more and more desperate to get home. He deals with his loneliness in an admirable way, and his steadfastness and loyalty make for strong traits in a main character.

Abel’s Island is a story driven more by thoughtful characters than all-out action. This is an ideal feel good story with a happy ending that parents can read aloud with their third or fourth grade readers. The soothing writing style and short page count make this a good read for a rainy day.

2015: El Deafo

VERDICT: Treasure!

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

El Deafo, a 2015 Newbery Honor recipient authored by Cece Bell, is an absolutely fantastic, loosely autobiographical graphic novel about the daily life of a girl. Cece (the main character) contracted meningitis when she was 4, which lead to substantial hearing loss. At first, no one realizes what has happened. When Cece’s parents finally do discover the hearing loss, a number of specialist visits culminate in hearing aids.

Cece heads off to kindergarten with a large hearing aid called a Phonic Ear. Because they live in a big city at that point, she is able to attend class exclusively for kids like her. However, the next year the family moves to a smaller town and Cece is the only deaf kid in her class. She feels very conspicuous and is afraid that no one will be friends with her.

Over time, Cece does indeed make friends with a number of other kids. However, she is still frequently lonely, as friendships ebb and flow. After realizing that her Phonic Ear hearing aid lets her hear the teacher no matter where in the building the teacher is, Cece begins to imagine herself as El Deafo, a superhero.

Eventually, Cece shares her super hearing with her class at school, so that everyone can “party” while the class is left alone to work silently on math. This forges a friendship with one of Cece’s neighbors, who helps her test the range of the hearing aid and becomes a true friend.

El Deafo is great because the characters are so realistic. No friendship/interaction is perfect – I suspect we all have friends who have at least one trait that bugs us. Cece is creative, keeps trucking even when friendship break, and finds the good in her differences, a real talent. I highly recommend this for mid-to-late elementary school readers and beyond. As I said, I enjoyed this Newbery selection greatly.

Below, the author talks a bit about her book:

2016: Last Stop on Market Street

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Last Stop on Market Street, the highly acclaimed winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal as well as numerous other awards, is aimed at early elementary school children. As such, it’s a bit hard to judge against other Newbery Medal winners because it’s written at a completely different level.

The story told is that of a young boy and his grandmother, who have an entertaining bus ride to the final stop of the Market Street bus route. Along the way, the grandmother gently instructs the kid on how to interact with people. Everything is infused with her optimism and unique worldview. At the end of the bus ride, the duo arrive at a soup kitchen, where they help serve a meal.

The story is very simple; what really sells it are the beautiful illustrations, depicting a diverse community going about its daily life. The optimism is contagious and touching. I highly recommend this for younger kids; the language is simple enough that it’d likely work as a read-together book for those first learning to read.