1968 Honor: The Egypt Game

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is an entertaining read that plays to a child’s overactive imagination and taps into an adult reader’s nostalgia for simpler times.

If you obsessed over Egyptian mythology as a child, this is the book for you. When April comes to live with her grandmother, she makes an unlikely friendship with her neighbor Melanie, and they begin to bond over their love of ancient Egypt. They  unintentionally recruit a group of kids to play in the backyard of an antique shop where they create their own Egyptian names, construct altars to gods for sacred ceremonies, and play around with hieroglyphics. But things begin to get mysterious when a murder happens nearby and the make-believe oracle they ask questions to begins to answer them back.

I found this to be a decent read. Children with active imaginations can easily relate to the main characters in this book and their adventures while adult readers will be nostalgic for their younger days when they could easily play pretend games all day.

Despite the fun plot, the book has an older style of language that may put off younger readers. The main characters converse in a more sophisticated way than how modern children their age would speak now. But, I will say that the book did a good job with having a very diverse cast of characters.

With an amusing story line and a varied cast of characters, The Egypt Game is for readers who enjoy Egyptian mythology and its ancient pantheon of captivating gods, but more likely the ones who will love it are those who once upon a time played make-believe games with the other kids in their neighborhoods who are looking for a way to reminisce.

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1966 Honor: The Animal Family (Lynxes, and Mermaids, and Bears, Oh My!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating 3.5/5

The Animal Family, written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is a small-format story written in a classic fairy tale style. A hunter, who has lived alone in the woods since his parents died, woos a mermaid by singing to her. She decides to move to land and live with him. The hunter eventually yearns for a child; rather than a human, he ends up with first a bear cub, then a lynx. Those two engage in many entertaining antics. Their best one, however, is rescuing a human baby whose mother died in a boat wreck. Everyone lives happily as a family.

This story was simple but surprisingly entertaining. The whimsy kept everything fresh. After the gross sexism of The Great Wheel, I particularly appreciated that the hunter never tried to change the mermaid. It didn’t matter how much one of her behaviours irritated him or vice versa.  In one case, the author writes,”Why should he want her to keep house? If you had a seal that could talk, would you want it to sweep the floor?” The Animal Family does have a happily-ever-after ending, with a slight twist. The very ending of the book is framed as a story told to the human boy, one he’s not sure he believes. His disbelief tilts the story such that readers are unsure whether the story really happened as told or not.

I highly recommend this as a read-together book for early elementary school readers. The format mirrors fairy tales, giving them a basis of familiarity. Slightly older children might enjoy reading this by themselves.

1960s Newbery Medal Recap

The 1960s Newbery Medal winners can be described in one word – mediocre. Historical fiction and coming of age stories dominated this era, but we also got some samplings of adventure stories that represented both science fiction and fantasy genres. It’s not that this decade was awful; it’s just that the stories were boring and forgettable. And we had such high hopes for the ‘60s.

Our combined ratings were the highest yet for this decade, coming in at 3.18 out of 5. No rating went below a 2 and one novel achieved a 5 star rating. Sally’s average rating was 3.15, and Laurinda’s was 3.2.

Well, at least Laurinda and I are through with the worst (we hope) as we have now officially read 48 out of 93 Newbery winners – just over halfway done. The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s are filled with the stories we had to read in grade school so we are optimistically, yet cautiously, looking forward to the next few decades.

And here is our list of where the best of ‘60s kid lit fall on our Trash or Treasure barometer. Yeah, the ‘60s kind of stunk.

Treasures: Instant Classics
Island of the Blue Dolphins
A Wrinkle in Time

Toss-Ups: Mediocrity is Thy Name
The Bronze Bow
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Shadow of a Bull
I, Juan de Pareja
It’s Like This, Cat

Trash: Best Left Forgotten
Up a Road Slowly
The High King
Onion John

1969: The High King (Pig-Keepers Make Great Kings)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The High King, Lloyd Alexander’s 1969 Newbery Medal Winner, is the fifth and final book in the Pyrdain Chronicles. The series is a classic high fantasy tale which tracks Taran from childhood into the adult world. While Taran is technically titled Assistant Pig-Keeper, he has experience working at many trades. In the course of The High King, he primarily functions as warrior. Along with his companions, Taran seeks to prevent Arawn, the Dark Lord (ok, maybe not of that exactly title, but same difference), from taking over the world. About half the companions die along the way, generally in battle. They succeed in defeating Arawn, but learn that his defeat mean that those descended of Don must leave for another world? reality? Eilonwy, Taran’s beloved, is among those who must leave, until she uses her one wish to renounce any magical ability. Taran and Eilonwy live happily ever after, repairing all the shit that Arawn destroyed. The end. Or, in Alexander’s words, “Thus did an Assistant Pig-Keeper become High King of Pyrdain.”

Basically, just read Lord of the Rings instead. The similarities between the Pyrdain Chronicles and LOTR probably derive from the shared mythology on which they’re based, but LOTR storytelling is much more nuanced and less cliched. Alexander uses so many of the tropes of high fantasy that the whole thing very nearly reads as satire. Fair Folk/elves? Check. Magic wielders, both benevolent and baleful? Check. Lots of warriors who die in battle, some of who enact betrayals? Check. Woman depicted as unknowable to man? Check. It’s got it all!

In all fairness, this is a decent enough high fantasy series for the intended age range. I do remember enjoying the series when I was a wee one. Unlike many children/young adults, where everything works out happily, many of the characters developed across the series are offed swiftly and brutally in the final book. Death is senseless as often as heroic. Alexander does justice to the female characters; Eilonwy rides into battle with Taran and aids their quest as much as he. Taran faces a tough choices at the end: whether to give up Eilonwy to serve the kingdom or to abandon his oath and need to bring healing and life back to ravaged areas. Of course, it all works out in the end, but for a whole paragraph, the reader thinks Taran might not “win”.

While I have no plans to reread this, The High King is a respectable high fantasy novel. For those kids who’ve already chugged through the more modern fantasy series and are groping for something else to read, I’d recommend this, obviously starting with the first book.

1969: The High King (complete with oracular pigs)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series wraps up in the fifth and final book, The High King. Filled to the max with every trope that a high fantasy series can possibly offer, the fight between good and evil comes down to a final battle that needs the courage and help of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper.

A book based on Welsh mythology, The High King follows a group of heroes who must band together to save the day against the forces of evil. The adventure is kicked off by a prophecy made by an oracular pig, which is the only highlight of the journey. Beyond that, the story is just a bunch of battles and narrow escapes from being captured. The melancholy ending elevates the novel quite a bit, but it still wrapped everything up too neatly and perfectly for a book about war.

I listened to the first novel on audiobook, but I skipped over the middle books to read this one. Perhaps if I had, some of the characters would have felt more well-rounded and important to the plot. The tight-knit relationships between the heroes were lost on me as a result, and the sacrifices they made for each other lost their impact. The main characters were all fairly cookie cutter stereotypes. If forced to choose a favorite character, Princess Eilonwy would easily win because of her sass and high-spirited ways. She gives a much needed spark to a book that is overloaded with good-natured heroes who are always virtuous and noble.

This book encompasses everything that I hate about high fantasy – a simplistic good versus evil plot, bland characters, and lots of description of various battles. While children can read this novel as an introduction to this genre, as an adult reader it’s hard to not compare this to the countless other classic children’s fantasy novels out there like The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia. And it does not fare well in comparison.

Recommended for hardcore Welsh mythology buffs and lovers of high fantasy.

1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Running Away Pays)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

This mildly entertaining Newbery entry tells the story of the Kincaid children, who run away from their suburban home to live in the Met. They figure out how to avoid detection and manage to meet all their basic needs. While they’re living in the Museum, Claudia becomes obsessed with the recently acquired Angel statue, particularly in ascertaining whether Michelangelo created the piece. This eventually leads her to the title character, wealthy Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the woman from whom the Angel was purchased. Claudia and Jamie visit Mrs. Frankweiler, who offers to exchange authentication information for full details of the children’s adventures. Instead of simply handing the children details, however, the old lady gives them an hour to find the file in her filing system. The children are successful, and Mrs. Frankweiler deeds the sketch and paper that authenticate the statue to the children. They, in turn, ‘adopt’ her, and make a pact between themselves to come back and visit.

Although much of the book was tedious for me, as an adult reader, the last few chapters and the ending left me with a smile. I love how canny Mrs. Frankweiler made the children work hard for information rather than just giving it to them (I’m an archivist and librarian, so, yeah). Her ability to discern the motives of the children on only a short acquaintance was remarkable, and it was touching to see how well she and Claudia matched. I was less impressed with the earlier portions of the books. While the canniness of the children’s plan, and the mechanics of their daily life, were interesting as facts, the writing style didn’t inspire me to care about them. Since the book is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, there are frequent textual interruptions in which she adds notes to her solicitor. With the reader not “meeting” that character until late in the book, the interjections truly were interruptions that broke the flow of the story for me.

As Sally noted, though, the adventures of the children would likely have appealed to me greatly as a child, considering that I loved stories like the Boxcar Children. I even vaguely remember picking this up while in elementary school, though I don’t think I ever made it past the first few pages. This Newbery entry isn’t memorable from an adult perspective – I’ll honestly be happy if I never have to read it again – but could be a decent choice for a kid in middle to late elementary school, particularly one who enjoys adventure or art.

For those of you who have the opportunity to visit the Met in person, the museum has created a companion guide to be used with this title. You can find it here. Spoiler alert: they never acquired an angel statue by Michelangelo. Even if you don’t live close to the Met, many of the items with which Claudia was enamored can be seen in other collections (four-poster beds, Egyptian cat statues, etc). This would make an excellent “scavenger hunt” activity, where the reader pre-selects a number of items mentioned in the book, then has to find the closest approximation in whatever museum is accessible.

1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (wherein the title is better than the actual plot)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a funny, charming, and most of all entertaining look into the antics of two runaways who decide to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Part mystery, part adventure, this book creates a tale that both adults and children can enjoy as it lets its readers indulge in the simplistic child’s fantasy of running away to a museum.

The main duo of Claudia and Jamie develop a great camaraderie as they plan their break in to the museum and find a way to stay there. Claudia’s over-the-top organization and thriftiness complement Jamie’s street smarts and pockets full of change. Their banter is both witty and amusing, easily depicting the kind of bickering that two best friends oftentimes do.

Humor is definitely what sells this book. Disregarding the ludicrous plot line of getting past security at a museum for a week, every chapter is interspersed with small annotations from the titular Mrs. Frankweiler, who is rather contemptuous of everyone else. She has several good zingers that accompany her candid remarks on how the world works. Claudia’s no-nonsense voice combined with Jamie’s talent for getting into trouble provides some amusement as well as they try to succeed in their goal.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a success because it is essentially wish fulfillment. Most children have probably fantasized about running away from home in the way these two children did. Claudia and Jamie get to live in the museum, take baths in the fountains where they find some free money, sleep on beds in the exhibits, and learn something new each day from the tour guides. They eventually get swept up in a mystery that is bigger than anything they have ever been involved with as they try to figure out if a statue was really created by Michelangelo. Through these two everyday characters, readers can live vicariously through their exploits and empathize with their love of learning about history.

While I enjoyed this book, nothing really makes it stand out from the countless other retellings of a similar plot. E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a book that is meant to entertain, which it does very well, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to any child, but it won’t leave a lasting impression on me.