Non-Newbery: A Monster Calls

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

This is an absolutely heart breaking, beautiful book. It was written by Patrick Ness from ideas left by Siobhan Dowd, when she died of cancer.

A “monster” – The Green Man, Lugh, it has gone by many names over time – appears one night in Conor’s backyard. His mother is sick, and he can’t accept that. The monster tells the boy stories, which are woven into the narrative, alternating with the boy’s life. Bullying, and the monster’s stories, are the only times when Conor feels “seen” by those around him. The adults around him, in their haste to be sympathetic, let Conor get away with anything, making him feel invisible. This, in turn, leads to actions to force them to deal with him.

Conor is also plagued by a nightmare in which his mother is falling over a cliff, and he can’t hold on. The monster helps him figure out why the nightmare happens and forces it to its conclusion – Conor letting go of his mom. The monster also sits with Conor while his mother dies in real life.

There were ugly tears, and a lot of them, while I was reading the book. The narration style is fairly simple, but the message profound. The monster’s tales aren’t simple, moralizing passages, but present fairly complex truths. Their integration with Conor’s life is well handled and heightens both. I highly recommend this for everyone. I’d say middle school and up will get the most out of it. It’d be fine for younger readers that don’t get scared very easily – no gore or objectionable language, some bullying, and, of course, death.

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Non-Newbery: The Donner Dinner Party

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Because I work at a university whose primary focus is on education, the library has a substantial children’s book collection. I spottedĀ Donner Dinner Party on the new books shelf and couldn’t resist. When I was in elementary school, I went through a history/ historical fiction phase, which included reading a LOT about the Donner Party.

Donner Dinner Party cover

This graphic novel is an entertaining addition to the fairly extensive literature on the Donner Party. The history is well researched and the writing entertaining but not overly gruesome. The narrator is Nathan Hale (the patriot, and a pun on the author, who shares the name). Hale tells the story of the Donner Party to his hangman and the British soldier guarding him. All interject at various points in the story.

For those unfamiliar with the history, the short version goes like this: Families leave the Midwest (mostly Illinois) bound for California. They make bad choices and end up way behind schedule. Most of the party gets trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. They resort to cannibalism. Rescue parties eventually get the survivors out. This is the portion of the story (the cannibalism) on which most books focus. However, Hale does an excellent job explaining how things got to be so bad, focusing on James Reed’s prideful errors and refusal to listen, as well as the internal rifts within the fairly fluid “Donner” Party.

The hangman provides greatĀ comic relief. He is completely unfazed by cannibalism (he himself participated when shipwrecked), but gets worked up over animal deaths, refusing to believe that Billy the pony starved to death after the Reed family left him to wander. The book even includes a panel drawn by the hangman, showing the lovely meadows in which Billy and the family dog ended up.

This is a great book to interest kids in history. The Donner Party has the appeal of goriness, but the book moves beyond shock value to capturing the challenges posed by the trip itself and the fracturing of group dynamics in which it results. Because of the graphic novel format, even relatively marginal readers can get something out of the book. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for an engaging non-fiction read.