1987 Honor: On My Honor

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

WARNING: On My Honor talks about the loss of a child in an accident.

On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer, one of the 1987 Newbery Honor awardees, is a dark but very touching story. Joel and his best friend Tony ride their bikes towards Starved Rock park. Tony, a daredevil, wants to climb the bluffs. Joel is more cautious. On the way to the park, Tony decides to go swimming in the Vermillion River, despite the dangers it poses (strong current, quicksand, etc and the fact that he can’t really swim. Joel joins him and dares Tony to swim to a sandbar. When Joel makes it there, he is shocked that Tony isn’t behind him. When Joel leaves the sandbar, his feet hit a much deeper whirlpool; he’s fairly sure Tony encountered the same. Joel unsuccessfully searches for Tony, and flags down a passerby to help search.

However, when he’s making his way home, Joel is overcome and can’t find the words to tell anyone what happened. Eventually, he tells a partial story to his dad, then tells the full story to the police when they come by to talk to Tony’s parents.

The author does an AMAZING job getting inside Joel’s head. She helps us understand why Joel decides not to tell his parents and/or the police immediately. She also tells the story of Joel’s emotional struggle with his friends loss, including both blaming himself and blaming his dad (who gave him permission to go on the bike ride).

I HIGHLY recommend this book. It’d be especially poignant for children who have lost a friend, but could also be a great book to kick off discussion of making choices and living with the consequences.

 

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1981 Honor: The Fledgling

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Jane Langton’s The Fledgling is about a young girl’s obsession with flying, but it fails to meet the same great heights of other magical realism stories that focus on human and animal friendships. In this Newbery Honor winner, Georgie becomes obsessed with the idea that she can fly and befriends a Canadian goose who takes her on flights during the night. Her family doesn’t understand her innocent yearning to fly and her interfering neighbor’s deadly vendetta against the harmless, old goose leads to inevitable tragedy.

This was an odd book. The magical realism aspect of the story was a bit too much for me, and the ending left me a bit confused and wondering what the point of the novel was. The main character is very sympathetic, as she feels truly alone as no one else truly understands her, but the family supports her in the best way they can, nonetheless. The flying scenes encompass the best parts of the book since the writing style really allows for the reader to feel the freedom and wonderment that Georgie feels.

The setting at Walden Pond is well integrated in the novel, with one of the characters researching the works of Henry David Thoreau, and the themes of transcendentalism are embedded within the narrative allowing for an easy way to introduce young readers to this type of literature.

This book has a lot of potential, and the writing style is very beautiful, infusing the story with a dream-like quality. Despite this, I would not recommend the book, unless you are a big fan of flying geese or transcendentalism.

1984 Honor: The Sign of the Beaver

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver is a story of survival and friendship among two vastly different cultures. When his father leaves one day on family business, twelve-year-old Matt is suddenly left alone to guard their cabin in the wilderness with no weapons and having no way to hunt for food. With his father gone for longer than expected, Matt begins to develop a friendship with Attean, a boy from the local Beaver clan, and begins to learn about the Native American way of life in exchange for teaching Attean how to read.

The growing friendship between the two young boys lends this children’s book some gravitas that takes it beyond a simple survival tale. Despite coming from two completely different cultures, they bond over their enjoyment of a Robinson Crusoe book and their misconceptions of each other begin to be challenged.

The harshness of the settler lifestyle is intriguing to read about, as Matt is put into dangerous situations like trying to figure out if he can trust a stranger who wants to stay the night in his cabin or finding ways to deal with the constant fear of wild animals potentially getting into his food stores or attacking him.

The only really negative thing about the book was that I felt the Indian tribe was written in a very stereotypical way and may not be as historically accurate or nuanced as it could have been. Despite this, it was nice to see a Newbery Honor book paint Native American interactions with white settlers in a positive light, unlike The Matchlock Gun and Daniel Boone, as well as the author’s melancholic foreshadowing of the continual takeover of Indian land and how that affected Indian tribes. The ending highlights these ideas to great effect as it ends on a bittersweet note with Matt forced to choose one life over the other.

Overall, this is a decent survival story with characters that are easy to sympathize with. Young readers will be able to identify with Matt’s struggles while also introducing them to how settlers and Native Americans interacted and lived in the 18th century.

 

1980 Honor: The Road From Home – The Story of an Armenian Girl

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

In the 1980 Newbery Honor, The Road From Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl, author David Kherdian retells his mother’s story of surviving the Armenian Genocide.

The book begins with the early years of Veron, who grows up among a respected upper class family. When the Armenian Genocide begins in 1915, Veron and her family are deported and forced out of their homes by the Turkish government. After years of trying to survive and escape the atrocities done to her people, Veron eventually leaves for American as a mail-order bride and hopes for a brighter future.

The book reads very much like a memoir. Veron is shown to be a strong and courageous person and is forced to survive incredible hardships and suffering. Her strength is, without a doubt, the highlight of this piece. The genocide that is depicted is chilling and horrible to read about, but somehow I found my attention drifting throughout the story as the writing style lacked a sense of urgency and true horror. On top of that, it was hard to connect with the characters as the narrative stilted the character’s emotions and development.

For those interested in learning more about Armenian culture and this historical era, this book has a lot to offer. On the other hand, if you are looking for a compelling narrative, don’t bother with this book, as it is a bit of a disappointment.

1984 Honor: A Solitary Blue (Heron, or Boy)

VERDICT: Meh

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

A Solitary Blue, one of the 1984 Newbery Honor selections, is set in the same universe as Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, the 1983 Newbery Medal Winner, reviewed by Sally and I. It follows Jeffrey from roughly ages 6-17. A Solitary Blue focuses heavily on relationships and emotions. When Jeff is in early elementary school, his vivacious mother Melody, always involved superficially in a cause, walks out for the final time, leaving Jeff with his very reserved father. Jeff always calls his father The Professor. Jeff decides that homeostasis is the way to go, so as he grows up, he increasingly takes on the task of keeping everything neat and orderly for The Professor.

When Jeff is in middle school, he comes down with a bad case of pneumonia. His father doesn’t initially realise he is sick; it takes the intervention of kind family freed Brother Brian to knock The Professor out of his shell. The illness also leads to renewed contact between Melody and the family she left behind, including an invitation for Jeff to spend the summer with her in Charleston.

The first summer Jeff spends in Charleston is freeing. His emotional mother helps him express himself fully. Jeff is immersed in the luxury which his extended family’s income affords them, while still having the freedom to go exploring the city. The transition back to life with his reserved father is challenging. With the memory of the first summer, Jeff has high hopes for another one. However, things are much different. His mother is dismissive of him or away with her boyfriend much of the time, his older relatives are hateful, and the experience is unpleasant. On one of the last nights Jeff has there, he has a knockdown fight in which his mother verbally destroys him, to which he responds somewhat in kind. Jeff is overwrought and takes the boat he purchased earlier in the summer out to an island he had been exploring. He finally finds a bit of solace in a solitary blue heron.

Life isn’t much better when he gets home, as he feels incredibly betrayed by his mother; he takes to skipping school. This actually provides an opening for a growing relationship with his father once The Professor discovers what’s going on; the two bond over mutual hurt. At his dad’s suggestion, the two look for a new house and find a lovely cabin, sealed with the presence of a blue heron.

Although not always easy – his mother claims she’s going to sue for custody when his parent’s divorce is finalized, for example – Jeff makes friends in his new home, including with the Tillerman family from Dicey’s Song. It comes as a surprise to Jeff when his great grandmother leaves him the estate. He chooses to keep her engagement ring but pass the rest along to the former household staff. His final interaction with his capricious and manipulative mother is when she arrives asking about the ring. To be quits of her, he trades rings with her, keeping the one that is tied to family history while allowing her the monetarily valuable one.

This is not an easy book to read. I basically alternated which parent I wanted to scream at initially. My heart broke for Jeff at times, particularly when his mother deliberately attempted to manipulate him. It deals a lot with emotions and relationships and less so with action. The author’s character development keeps it from being a complete snore, but it’s still a pretty angsty book. I went through a phase when I was in middle school when this over-the-top angst might have appealed. As an adult, it was a bit much. However, I appreciated the book for dealing with some of the hard parts of both severing and establishing relationships, as well as the author’s lovely description of the natural beauty which soothed Jeff’s soul. It’s not bad, but neither do I recommend it highly.

1986 Honor: Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Rhoda Blumberg’s Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun tells the true story of Matthew Perry’s visit to Japan in 1853 in an effort to establish trade relations with the then-isolated country.

This book provides a balanced look at both the Japanese and American sides of this cultural-blending event. It starts with Perry and his ships landing in Japan and slowly negotiating throughout year-long talks to establish a trading post with the samurai-based Japanese culture. It’s amazing to read about a time in world history where two nations came together peacefully, especially because the two countries couldn’t be any more different if they tried. The story is very positive and provides an optimistic message on how cultural differences can be solved without conflict or violence.

Despite being historical nonfiction, there is a lot of humor to be found in the book – whether it’s the Japanese depictions of the barbarous Americans or the commentary on odd quirks in American culture. The narrative moves along at a quick pace with an appendix of historical documents for further reading. The storyline is easy enough to understand for younger readers, and adults can easily learn a few new things as well.

I think the book could have been improved with a just a little more context for the time period, especially in regards to American politics and events. The author kind of just drops the reader into the action, and while we get the background history for the Japanese and their samurai culture, a little more backstory for the American ships could have been useful to know about – especially for younger readers.

Overall, this nonfiction title provided a decent overview of a unique time in American history – one that most likely gets little exposure to middle school students. I’d recommend it to readers who are interested in Japanese history.

1988: Lincoln, A Photobiography (Lincoln through the lens)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman details the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.

The biography was written in a well-balanced way, with humorous and thoughtful quotes littered throughout the text. The author covers Lincoln’s philosophy on slavery throughout the war and discusses how his contemporaries viewed him. Don’t bother reading this book if looking for information about the battles of the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln is the major center point of this work. Additionally, information is included on the major historical sites and houses related to Lincoln’s life.

As a nonfiction work, this biography supplements the details of his life with plenty of portraits and pictures of important people and events during the Civil War era. The pictures are useful in getting a better sense of what life was like back in the 1800’s, as well as showing how Lincoln changed throughout his presidency. Through historical anecdotes and stories, the author creates a vivid portrait of Lincoln as a real person – instead of just a person from our past.

Overall, this was a concise and quick read on one man’s struggle to unite a divided nation during the Civil War. Children could easily read and find information about different parts of Lincoln’s life as the narrative was simple to follow. Adults can also find enjoyment in this book if looking for a quick refresher on United States history.