2014 Honor – Doll Bones

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

Doll Bones by Holly Black, a 2014 Newbery Honor winner, is a story about stories, about growing up, and about one creepy doll. Alice, Poppy, and Zach have been playing together for a long time. Using a variety of action figures and dolls, they create their own stories. On the brink of adolescence, Zach’s dad feels that dolls aren’t manly, and throws out all of Zach’s figures. This precipitates changes in the friends’ relationship. It also causes Poppy to pull The Queen, an antique bone china doll, out of the case in which it is typically displayed.

And then, The Queen appears in Poppy’s dreams, telling her that the doll is made of a young woman’s bones, bones that must be laid to rest. Poppy talks Alice and Zach into undertaking a real life quest. Without parental permission, they buy bus tickets to the city in which the doll was made, and set off on a quest of their own. Like any good heroes, they face various obstacles along the way. They don’t always meet them with grace, but they do overcome them eventually. They succeed in their quest, and in hashing out a way forward in lives that dawning adolescence was making unfamiliar.

I listened to this as an audio book and really enjoyed it. There aren’t any jump scares, just some of the usual creepiness of dolls – eyes open when they shouldn’t be, clearly cremains inside the doll body, adults around them thinking they were a party of 4 when only 3 actual children existed, etc. The author balances adventure with the hard work of preteens negotiating relationships between each other in a way that children don’t do as self-consciously. She also integrates the store of Eleanor (the girl whose bones were used in the making of the doll), revealing that story piece by piece, with information integrated as a method for moving the plot along.

As a librarian,  I was also amused, and appreciative, of the author making the librarian VERY non-stereotypical. She also showed some of the realities of dying towns – kids were upset that the library was closed on the weekend, librarian found them because she was coming in to do selection and ordering when the library was closed, etc.

Late elementary school and middle school is the target audience, with some complexities to the relationship stuff that might skew it more towards the middle school side, just because kids a bit older have started to deal with those issues in their own lives.

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2002 Honor: Everything on a Waffle

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle follows the quirky adventures of a small town girl who moves in with her uncle when her parents are lost at sea. Everyone in the Canadian town of Coal Harbor thinks they are dead, but Primrose unwavering believes that they are alive and will return to her one day. As Primrose gets to better know the locals, she gains a greater appreciation for the town she lives in and begins to understand her place in the world.

This was a very sweet book. Primrose’s genuine interest in the peculiar townfolk leads to some thoughtful conversations on hope, faith and family. Despite some heavy subjects involving child custody battles, a family friend starting to lose her memory, and even accidents involving Primrose cutting off her toe, the story is very optimistic and heartwarming.

Since the book tended to focus on isolated events in each chapter, it was somewhat hard to feel connected to the story and the characters. Most of the townspeople were characters with an odd quirk that defined their entire personality, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to sink your teeth into.

Every chapter includes a recipe that Primrose mentions throughout the book, which adds some fun activities for younger readers and makes this an ideal read for the whole family. Overall, it was an enjoyable story, but not particularly memorable.

1968 Honor: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

E. L. Konigsburg’s Newbery Honor winning book follows the ups and downs of a new friendship between two lonely girls who have overly vivid imaginations.

When Elizabeth moves to town, she has no friends until she meets a classmate who claims to be a witch. Elizabeth is taken on as an apprentice where she must go through a series of tasks to prove herself – eating raw eggs for a week, creating an ointment that will let them fly, and casting small spells (just using their imaginations). As their friendship grows, one final task threatens to tear the girls apart when Elizabeth is ordered to throw their pet toad into a boiling potion.

In my opinion, the two main characters set this book apart from other contemporary fiction books. Elizabeth is a lonely girl who just wants a friend and blindly follows Jennifer’s instructions no matter how strange they sound. Jennifer, on the other hand, is a character who doesn’t care what other people think about the way she talks, the way she acts, or the way she dresses. Both characters complement the other, making it easy to understand why their friendship develops since both of them are outsiders. You can feel their desperation for a friend in every conversation they have, even if the girls don’t have much in common at first.

This book was not exactly what I was expecting; however, the nostalgia factor made this book more enjoyable than it should of been. If you ever enjoyed playing make believe as a kid, this book will probably bring back some of those memories. Its downside was the slow pace, outdated feel of ’60s day-to-day life, and the fact that nothing exciting happened in the plot – it was basically just Elizabeth doing a lot of random things to become a witch.

Overall, I found this to be a good excuse for a walk down memory lane. Konigsburg also wrote the Newbery winner for this year as well – From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – which I thought was far superior to this one.

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.

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: