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.

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1989: Joyful Noise – Poems for Two Voices (Bug Poetry)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

Joyful Noise – Poems for Two Voices, the 1989 Newbery Medal Winner, is a collection of poems written from the perspective of insects. It’s designed, as the title says, to be read by two people, with some lines in unison and others alternating. For me, the real star of this book was the illustrations, like that of book lice. The poetry is mildly humorous and would be fun for an adult and child to read together. The vocabulary is generally simple enough to allow this.

One of my particular favorite poems is about honeybees. One speaker is a worker bee while the other is the queen. The poem contrasts their perspectives, ending with, respectively “Truly, a bee’s is the worst of all lives” and “Truly, a bee’s is the best of all lives.” I appreciate how the lines alternatively match up and diverge, with some great onomatopoeia going on in the cicadas poem. As mentioned earlier, this would be great for fairly young kids, particularly those who like bugs and reading aloud. There’s not much in it that would make me recommend this for adults, as I found it only moderately amusing, not a must read.

1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall (looking for a home on the range)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating 3.5/5

Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall is essentially a character study about a mysterious woman who moves to the Midwest when she answers an advert from a man who is looking for a wife. Told through the perspective of a young child, this is a slow tale that unfolds as the family learns more about Sarah and her history.

The structure of the book is very simple. When hearing that their father’s advert for a wife is finally answered, two children begin to send letters to Sarah to learn more about her. When she eventually comes to visit them, they get to know her and try to do all they can to persuade her to stay. While the plot is not very exciting, there are some good character beats. The children act like children and the adults act like adults, but there is some character growth for all the characters.

The main question that plagues the children throughout the novel is about why Sarah would leave her seaside home to become a wife and mother to an unknown man and his family in a rural town. Sarah’s wistfulness towards her previous home comes through in all her stories to the children, but it eventually goes away with the promise of a family. By focusing explicitly on Sarah, the book is able to delve into some mature themes on loneliness, family and the definition of a home.

Sarah, Plain and Tall was a very fast read, only about sixty pages long. There’s nothing too complex in this children’s books, though centering a plot around an arranged marriage is rather interesting for a novel for this age group. Overall, it’s a sweet story about the growing bonds between a family that is both uplifting and inspirational.

1988: Lincoln A Photobiography (Lincoln: the quotable parts)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Lincoln A Photobiography, the 1988 Newbery Medal Winner, is one of the few nonfiction Newbery books. The nonfiction to this point has been an unqualified disaster, either horrifically racist or incredibly tedious. This was a surprisingly decent exploration of Abraham Lincoln; it provides context on external events for those new to the topic but employs enough interesting primary source material to retain the attention of those who do have some background in history.

Freeman balances the time he spends on each segment of Lincoln’s life, putting a slight emphasis on the presidential years but also discussing Lincoln’s early life, his entry into politics, and his family life. Lincoln’s changing view of and approach to slavery is one of the themes highlighted by Freeman. In Freeman’s account, Lincoln always disliked slavery but originally believed that, as long as its spread to the newly opened western territories was prohibited, it would die a natural death. As late as the first years of the Civil War, Lincoln favored reparations for slaveholders. Only later in the war did he champion abolition as a military necessity, coupling that with a hard-line view of slavery as a moral evil. I appreciate Freeman’s even-handed approach to his subject; he cautions the reader about the dangers of turning a historical figure into a hero and avoids that temptation himself. He also discusses the sources which he used for each section of the book. As an archivist and a historian, citations are my favorite 😉

I’d highly recommend this for late elementary or early middle school readers interested in history. It’d also be great for time-pressed adults who want to brush up on their U.S. history. I found the book quite readable and accurate within its scope.

 

 

1987: The Whipping Boy (or, a really long chase sequence)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating 3/5

Sid Fleischman’s The Whipping Boy is a quick and easy read that focuses on the crazy adventures of a prince and his whipping boy. What it lacks for in plot, it makes up for in character development, through teaching a lesson on how friendship can evolve between two people of different social backgrounds.

The plot begins when the prince decides to run away from his castle and takes his whipping boy with them. They are captured by two ruffians – at which point the book turns into a long chase sequence wherein the two protagonists must escape their captors and a gypsy bear that chases after them in the woods.

The two contrasting personalities of the protagonists help give this book some color and flavor. Prince Brat, a spoiled prince who plays pranks and refuses to act befit his station is someone you wish you could slap, while his whipping boy, Jemmy, who is punished every time the prince gets in trouble, is easy to sympathize with as it is quite easy to feel his exasperation towards his bizarre situation. Essentially a fable, the author tells a basic story on the meaning of friendship that kids can easily understand.

The Whipping Boy is entertaining with its juvenile humor that borders upon slapstick comedy. The simplistic characters make the humor shine, as none of the characters are particularly smart, except for Jemmy. For example, a fairly funny sequence happens when Jemmy is tricking their captors to release them by pretending to be the prince, but the prince keeps messing things up with his big ego and his inability to grasp what Jemmy is doing. The prince constantly makes every situation worse without knowing it, but it’s told in such a way that it’s easy to laugh at their absurd situation.

Overall, The Whipping Boy is a breezy read that doesn’t require much concentration. I remember reading this in fifth grade and thought it was enjoyable back then so I would definitely recommend it to younger readers. It’s a satisfactory read for people who don’t like long, complex and emotional novels and prefer short stories with a bit of playful humor.

1985: The Hero and the Crown (a girl and her horse)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating 4/5

On the surface, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown tells the tale of a girl who secretly trains to fight a black dragon and throughout the adventure finds her destiny. Yet, this simplistic tale tells a more complex story about finding one’s place in society and how sometimes one must step out of their assigned roles in order to find one’s greater purpose.

Aerin, the only child of the king of Damar, starts the book as a timid, sickly girl who has no real voice in her father’s court. As she slowly regains her strength, she secretly learns to fight with a sword, ride a horse, and create a recipe that will protect her from dragon fire. After secretly riding around killing some smaller dragons, she learns that Maur, the Black Dragon, has once again resurfaced.

This was an unexpected tale, because most stories would end with the heroine successfully killing the dragon. Yet this battle happens halfway through the novel; the greater threat is actually an army led by her uncle and Aerin’s struggle to regain her strength after her battle with the dragon. It was refreshing to read a book that took its time to chronicle the corruption of the kingdom and didn’t have the enemy be someone who could easily be dispatched. Its greater focus is on the consequences of the battles and how winning a fight doesn’t always mean that everything magically gets better.

The best parts of the book involve her growing bond with her father’s old lame warhorse, Talat. Saving him from a fate of being stuck in the stable’s forever, Aerin gives him a new sense of purpose as she begins to get the idea that she wants to kill the small dragons that are plaguing the countryside. Additionally, she attracts an army of wild cats and dogs throughout her quest, and her acceptance of her new animal friends makes her a fun heroine to follow.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the omniscient narration style. I wish it was solely from Aerin’s point of view, but the author frequently skips around to what the other characters are feeling or thinking during the middle of the chapter. While it didn’t impact the tale being told, it was a minor irritation in a beautifully told story.

This book is definitely to be recommended. The Hero and the Crown can easily be read by middle schoolers and adults alike, especially those who enjoy strong heroines and the fantasy genre.

1987: The Whipping Boy (All Hail Prince Brat!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Whipping Boy won the Newbery Medal in 1987. It is a humorous adventure-tale with a pseudo-medieval setting. Jemmy serves as Prince Brat’s whipping boy; he is punished every time the Prince misbehaves, which, as his nickname suggests, is frequently. Only one of the boys learns to read and write, and it isn’t the Prince. One evening, Prince Brat decides to run away from the palace, dragging Jemmy with him. The two are kidnapped by highwaymen and held for ransom. In an effort to protect and free the Prince, Jemmy pretends to be the royal. Prince Brat repeatedly foils Jemmy’s attempts to misdirect the thugs and to escape. Eventually, however, they both escape, at which point a dancing bear and a potato monger aid them. Jemmy knows the sewers well from his previous life, so he takes the Prince there to avoid recapture. They bond when the Prince deliberately sends the thugs into the tunnel with vicious rats; together, they return to Palace, with the Prince promising good behaviour forevermore.

Although not a deep story by any means, The Whipping Boy was amusing and the action moved quickly enough to keep me interested. It’s a fairly short book – I finished it in about 40 minutes. The author matched the story line to the length, so it neither felt rushed nor beleaguered. Jemmy is a plucky character who does the best he can to protect the Prince, even though he initially dislikes Prince Brat. The intersection with his old life as a rat-catcher was well executed.

Scholastic informed me that this is 4th grade level. As with Sarah, Plain and Tall, this seems a bit inflated. I believe that children as young as 2nd grade should be able to read this mostly independently; parents might need to explain a few words and concepts, but the book is an easy read, just slightly above the level of the “first chapter book” books. While not an essential read, The Whipping Boy, this is a fun book which might appeal to reluctant readers, particularly those who enjoy adventure. Because of the low reading level, this will appeal less to adults than some of the Newbery entries aimed at slightly older kids. However, it’s a very fast reading, so if you’re looking for brainless fun, I recommend this.