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.

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1976 Honor: The Hundred Penny Box (A Life in Change)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The Hundred Penny Box, by Sharon Bell Mathis tells the story of Michael, a young child, and his Aunt Dew. The venerable Aunt Dew is a hundred years old and has recently moved in with Michael’s parents. She tells wonderful stories about Reconstruction and other momentous historical events. However, Michael’s mother frequently clashes with Aunt Dew. Michael cherishes Aunt Dew; he helps keep her hundred penny box from destruction and prompts her for stories. He is sweet and patient with her even when she calls him by his father’s name.

My summary really doesn’t capture the book. So much of it is in tone; along with the corresponding images, they tell the tender story of a strong, venerable black woman who survived a whole lot and wants to share that with others. While are there some hints that she has Alzheimer’s/memory loss, her relationship with Michael is strong.

I highly recommend this, particularly for early elementary school students. While they may need some help reading it, the story will (hopefully) resonate and help them be more thoughtful in their own interactions with the elderly. Even as a grown-up, I found this an incredibly touching, poignant story that captures multiple perspectives while honoring the primary narrators. It explores Michael’s mother’s frustrations at Aunt Dew moving in as well as Aunt Dew’s struggle to maintain a sense of self and independence after she has moved.

1973 Honor: The Witches of Worm (Beware of the Cat)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

The 1973 Newbery Honor, The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, is a chilling and disturbing tale of one girl’s growing paranoia and belief that her cat is making her do horrible things to the people around her.

This book is a great children’s psychological horror novel with an atmospheric gothic vibe. The main character is a neglected child who is a manipulative liar with a mild curiosity of the Salem witch trials. When Jessica comes across an abandoned cat on a stormy night in her secret cave, she is at first repelled by it’s unnatural looks, but she ends up taking it in despite being disgusted by it. Everything is fine until the cat begins speaking to her and telling her to do horrible things – such as lying to her landlady about an intruder in the yard, getting a schoolmate into trouble with her mom, and smashing her former best friend’s instrument. The situation finally escalates to the point where Jessica believes she needs to kill the possessed cat.

Snyder does a fantastic job at building up Jessica’s paranoia – at first it’s just little things like Jessica believing the cat is talking to her and making suggestions to help her, but then it ramps up to the fact that the cat causes her to feel trapped in her own home. She has no one to talk to, with a mother who is more interested in finding her next husband than helping her daughter, a school-appointed counselor that Jessica doesn’t trust, and Mrs. Fortune – the resident cat lady who is oddly witch-like. Jessica is truly alone with no one to talk to except for the cat.

Throughout the entire book, the reader is left guessing at what is really going on in the story. Is the cat really a witch? Or is Jessica just using him as a scapegoat for her horrible misdeeds? The story ends on an ambiguous note where one is left questioning whether there were really witches involved or if Jessica’s own self-denial and overactive imagination were causing the events to happen. It’s up to the reader to truly decide the outcome and feels slightly unresolved in a classic horror sense.

I would highly recommend The Witches of Worm to anyone who loves a good horror story.

1979: The Westing Game (murderers, bombers, and stock brokers, oh my!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

A delight for lovers of mysteries and riddles, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is a clever and fast-paced book that promises to both entertain and solve a murder mystery at the same time.

The Westing Game begins with sixteen people seemingly at random moving into the same apartment complex, but things are not nearly as much of a coincidence as the reader might think. Things get complicated when a murder occurs at an old house of the street, and they are forced to play a game wherein they must solve the clues to find the murderer. As the mystery plays out, their connections to the dead victim are revealed, and they find out that some people have a deeper and darker history with Sam Westing than what was originally let on.

Having read this book before as a child, there was not much that could surprise me. Luckily, The Westing Game lends itself to being reread as you can catch all the red herrings and clues that were missed the first time. It’s fun to see how all the clues come together and how the author pieced the book together in order to come to a certain ending.

While there is a varied cast of characters, some individuals get a bit more depth than others. Turtle starts the novel as a bratty child who constantly feels upstaged by her older, more beautiful, sister, but quickly ends up an expert at running the stock market. Her sister, Angela, also gets a nice arc about not settling for what her family wants and instead going after her dreams. The characters of Otis, Crow, Sandy, and Judge Ford also have some surprises up their sleeves, but many of the other characters fall flat despite having eccentric personalities.

The one thing that dragged the book down was the writing style. The sudden changes in point of views were rather jarring as each paragraph would jump to a different character’s perspective. With sixteen main characters, the constant jumping around left me feeling that many of the characters could have been better served with more time spent with them.

As a child, this was one of my favorite books that I could read over and over again. I would still definitely recommend it for those who enjoy solving puzzles and riddles, as there are plenty of mysteries to figure out in The Westing Game.

1978: Bridge to Terabithia (when fantasy and reality collide)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Katherine Paterson’s novel, Bridge to Terabithia, is a character driven story that is light on plot but heavy on emotion. It tells the simple story of the beginnings of an unlikely friendship that is tragically cut too short when disaster strikes.

Normally, classic coming of age stories are not my thing. They tend to move at a slow pace and pile on the angst to extreme levels. But Jess’s clear and candid voice kept the story true to life as his relationships and reactions to the events around him are seemingly genuine. His new friendship with Leslie, a tomboyish girl who runs to the beat of her own drum, gives Jess’s life new meaning as both outsiders find a kindred spirit in one another.

In their loneliness, they create their own magical land where anything can happen. As King and Queen of Terabithia, they don’t have to play by life’s rules and deal with their small town issues of bullying and family drama. As a reader, it’s easy to step into their shoes and feel their excitement for their own make-believe world. Jess, himself, is a creative and artistic person and it’s lovely to see how he becomes more confident of his skills under the influence of a fellow creative mind. Unfortunately, their fun is cut short when the harshness of reality sets in.

The ending definitely leaves a bit of a punch. While the death at the end of the story is tear-jerking, the book still ends on an upbeat note – with the narrator having become a stronger person as a result of the events that had transpired. The book does not wallow in the grief that is felt by the main characters, but instead taps into the idea that hope is eternal and life will go on.

When I initially read this book as a fifth grader, I didn’t particularly care for it because the angst felt a bit over the top and too dramatic. Rereading this book as an adult, it’s easier to appreciate the simplicity of Jess and Leslie’s adventures. This story examines the powerful idea of imagination and how two people can easily bond over their overactive thinking and dreams. Overall, Bridge to Terabithia does a great job at capturing just how messy, exuberant and heartbreaking life can be.

1979: The Westing Game (Neighbors, Games, and Murder)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Westing Game, the 1979 Newbery Medal Winner, is the story of how Samuel Westing disposed of his fortune by gathering together a group of people and making them compete. While the pacing keeps it fairly readable, the plot and characters failed to draw me in. I love flawed characters, but I found nearly all of these tediously venial and unengaging.

Samuel Westing, reclusive millionaire, stealthily draws together a group of people, most of them tied to him in some way, by offering them apartments in a newly constructed building. They run the gamut in age, occupation, and personality. A judge, a girl fond of kicking others, a podiatrist, multiple restaurateurs, and various others comprise the group. Shortly thereafter, Westing “dies”, leaving clues with an attorney and instructing the chosen people to solve his murder. Shenanigans ensue, including a theft and a few bombings. Officially, the mystery is declared unsolved, but each participants is given a modest amount of money. Turtle Wexler, champion shin-kicker and biological relative of Westing, manages to solve the riddle; she figures out that Westing has taken on four direction-based aliases over the course of the game and seeks him under the final name. She conceals her win from the others but becomes close with Westing, caring for him when he finally does sicken and die.

What I did like: the book has a great take on what-you-see-isn’t-what-you-get, or the importance of looking beneath the surface of people. One of the major plot twists is that Samuel Westing had disguised himself and was living among the other members of the game. Turtle wins by working that out. Angela, virginal bride-to-be, known solely for her engagement to a plastic surgery intern, was really the one who set bombs in the apartment complex; she also had the brains and desire to be a doctor in her own right. It’s a kids book, so, of course, Angela gets to break her engagement and finish her education, before marrying the guy to whom she was originally engaged.

This isn’t a terrible Newbery read. It still trumps many of the earlier Newbery winners. It is a fast read, with occasional interesting turns of phrase. However, there just wasn’t anything that grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. I worked on the book for an ENTIRE week before finally sucking it up and taking it home to finish. The Westing Game would be a fun book for kids that enjoy riddles and mysteries, as it’s very focused on solving clues. The 1970’s have been full of genuinely excellent Newbery entries, though, so I recommend most people read one of those instead.

1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (a year of discontent)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautifully written story that explores the nature of human cruelty and brutality from a child’s perspective as racial tensions begin to escalate in the Deep South during the Depression.

Cassie Logan is the best part of the novel. Her childlike innocence at the beginning of the book deeply contrasts against the discrimination that is constantly going on around her. In some ways, she reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird as both books are written through the eyes of a young girl who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Cassie, of course, must travel a tougher road, as she faces harassment and discrimination while not fully understanding why she is being treated differently just because of the color of her skin. Parts of the book are tough to read, especially the chapters where she is humiliated by another girl just because she wouldn’t get out of her way, and her resulting confusion and anger make her seem like she could be a real person.

Just as Cassie feels flawed and real, the book portrays the sentiments of the pre-Civil Rights era in a realistic way. It perfectly captures a deeply tumultuous time in our nation’s history without feeling too much like an after school special. Every action in the story has consequences that stretch beyond a single chapter; they permeate the book as a sense of dread builds up to the climax and Cassie’s world is forever changed.

Overall, this book was a bit lengthy, and while it told an intriguing story, I felt my attention beginning to drift about two-thirds of the way through. A tighter plot would have held my interest better, even though I enjoyed the themes that were addressed. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry easily makes the case for its inclusion in the Newbery Medal winner list.