2002 Honor: Everything on a Waffle

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle follows the quirky adventures of a small town girl who moves in with her uncle when her parents are lost at sea. Everyone in the Canadian town of Coal Harbor thinks they are dead, but Primrose unwavering believes that they are alive and will return to her one day. As Primrose gets to better know the locals, she gains a greater appreciation for the town she lives in and begins to understand her place in the world.

This was a very sweet book. Primrose’s genuine interest in the peculiar townfolk leads to some thoughtful conversations on hope, faith and family. Despite some heavy subjects involving child custody battles, a family friend starting to lose her memory, and even accidents involving Primrose cutting off her toe, the story is very optimistic and heartwarming.

Since the book tended to focus on isolated events in each chapter, it was somewhat hard to feel connected to the story and the characters. Most of the townspeople were characters with an odd quirk that defined their entire personality, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to sink your teeth into.

Every chapter includes a recipe that Primrose mentions throughout the book, which adds some fun activities for younger readers and makes this an ideal read for the whole family. Overall, it was an enjoyable story, but not particularly memorable.

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2006 Honor: Whittington (a cat tale)

VERDICT: 2.5/5

Sally’s Rating: Trash

Whittington by Alan Armstrong is a classic cat tale – full of warmth, humor and history.

This Newbery Honor winning tale follows Whittington, a scruffy tomcat who arrives one day at a barn full of rescued animals and asks for a place to stay. To earn his keep, he narrates the story of his 16th century ancestor, the nameless cat of a boyish Dick Whittington – the man who would eventually become a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London.

A secondary subplot follows the two grandchildren of the landowner. Abby’s brother Ben struggles with dyslexia and has been warned by the school principal that if his reading skills do not improve, he cannot pass his current grade. Through Whittington’s influence, everyone finds ways to try to encourage Ben to become a better reader.

Overall, I found this book to be a bit of a disappointment. Most of the story takes place in the past through the cat’s narration of the events surrounding the true-to-life Dick Whittington, and when juxtaposed with the dyslexia storyline, makes for an all-over-the-place thematic narrative. The best parts of the book follow the cat’s humorous attempts to cull the rat problem in the barn and his honest discussions with the duck that is in charge. Otherwise, it’s a slow muddle through a book that has no enticing plot to grab the reader’s attention.

If looking for a book with talking animal characters, take a pass on this one. No doubt there are more engaging stories out there that feature cats, rats and geese for readers to indulge in.

 

 

2006 Honor: Show Way

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson is a children’s book which tells the history of Woodson’s family; it situates members in their historical context and does a great job of showing how individuals make history.

The story begins before the Civil War, with a great grandmother’s great grandmother. She made quilts to help escaping slaves follow the Underground Railroad. They called these Show Ways, because they showed the way to a particular destination. If you’d like to learn more about this, National Geographic has an interesting article on it. Through generations, the women in the family continued to find inspiration in quilting. Quilt squares helped calm and reassure two aunts who participated in the 1960’s struggles for Civil Rights. Despite how much the author’s life has changed from that of her predecessors, quilting, together with the drive to read and write shared by more recent generations, helps tie together the past and present.

Honestly, the pictures are the real star of this book. I’ve posted a number of them, like this to our Tumblr. The history heavy panels use a lovely collage/mural of pictures and newspaper articles talking about the event, with illustrations of the relevant character standing in front of the mural. The quilts included are very colorful; I particularly love an illustration towards the end that integrates the text of the entire book into a quilt square.

This Newbery Honor winner is aimed at younger children, probably about kindergarten age. For me, this was worth picking up primarily for the pictures. The story is fine and absolutely one that should be told; it just didn’t grab me as strongly as the images.

2006 Honor: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow was a 2006 Newbery Honor. Its title is fairly self-explanatory. The book draws on the stories of a number of people who were affected by the Hitler Youth; Bartoletti uses individuals to tell the broader story of the major role Hitler Youth played in Hitler’s rise to power and in WWII.

Bartoletti chose a roughly chronological organization, which emphasized the changes Hitler brought to German society. As Hitler consolidated power, Hitler Youth became first recommended and then required, with a corresponding repression of all other youth organizations. The attendant brainwashing was greatly beneficial, as you saw children reporting their parents to authorities and a tightening of control over society.

Following the declaration of war, Hitler Youth and the girls’ BDM were set to taking over much home front labor to free up troops for combat duty. They dug trenches, provided additional labor on farms and in nurseries, and much more. Later on, the troop age was lowered further and further, with elite units of Hitler Youth serving as shock troops; because of their ideological devotion, many continued fighting even when it was clear that they had lost.

One thing that struck me while reading this was how well the author explored the motivations individuals had for their actions, even delving into the emotions behind some of their choices. The need for belonging was a primary motivator for those who became involved with Hitler Youth. Her inclusion of people who opposed Hitler, like Sophie Scholl, as well as those who changed their minds later, created a fuller picture of the youth landscape in Germany.

The author drew on both previously published accounts and personal interviews with those participants who were still alive. This story-driven narrative made for interesting (in a good way) reading, even for someone like myself who is fairly well versed in this epoch in history. Hitler Youth is recommended for Grades 2-5. I believe that students on the older end of that range, more like Grades 4-6, would get the most out of this. The language is a bit challenging for the younger end of the age range and the subject matter, by its nature, on the moderately disturbing side. While Bartoletti doesn’t use overly-graphic narration, she does describe the films and inmates which the Hitler Youth were forced to view and work with after they lost the war, as part of the attempt to undo their brainwashing. This book is a great teaching tool and a perfect addition to the collection of anyone who enjoys learning about WWII.

 

2009 Honor: The Surrender Tree – Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The Surrender Tree tells the story of Cuba’s struggles for freedom using poetry as a medium.

Rosa grows up a slave, trained in healing using plant-based folk remedies. She gains a reputation for her skills; she is even called upon to work on the white slave catcher’s son. Eventually, Rosa chooses to run away and join one of the runaway slave communities hidden deep in the forest.

There, she and her husband participate in several struggles for freedom. Rosa establishes hospitals and trains numerous assistants. Despite the cruelty visited upon the Cuban revolutionaries by the Spanish army, including imprisonment of all non-combatants in internment camps, Rosa steadfastly treats whoever shows up at her doorstep. Her compassion results in numerous Spanish troops switching sides in the conflict.

Throughout all of this, the slave catcher who Rosa once saved, now known by the moniker Lieutenant Death, has made catching her his  mission. Their strangely intertwined lives intersect several times, but he never succeeds in his mission.

Margarita Engle, the author, wrote an eloquent, moving story, which captures several important points in Cuban history. Rosa, her husband, and a girl who escapes the internment camps after her entire family dies there are sympathetic narrators. Despite being “rebels”, Rosa’s realism, humanity, and war-weariness shine through the narrative, creating a more complex picture of conflict than merely “must get the bad guys/accomplish our goals”. The Surrender Tree also examines U.S. involvement in the conflict, basically betraying the Cubans who thought they had come to help.

I highly recommend this selection to those who enjoy narratives written in verse, as well as those who are interested in history. The reading goes quickly and the language usage is impeccable. It is probably of most interest to middle and high schoolers. It’s within the capable of younger readers, but should be read with an adult to help contextualize slavery and war.

 

2006 Honor: Princess Academy

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy is about a fourteen-year-old girl who attends the princess academy and by the end of her lessons will have the chance of the lifetime to be picked by the prince to be his bride.

This book very much reads like a fairy tale. Miri lives up in the mountain lands of Eskel, where working in a quarry is the main way of life. When a soothsayer predicts that the next queen will come from her village, all the town’s teen girls are rounded up and sent to the academy to learn the manners, etiquette, and skills that a future princess will need to know. The sharp contrast between her former easy-going life and the strictness of the new academy brings out her boldness and desire to learn all she can. Miri’s a fun heroine to follow as she is a natural-born leader, and her relationships with her crush Peder and best friend Britta are fun to watch develop.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn’t focus much on the competition between the girls to win the title of Academy Princess; instead, it focuses on their growing friendships with each other. The girls’ education is a major focus of the novel, and it provides a viewpoint in how knowledge and learning are perceived by different social classes. While the girls begin the book uneducated, they are able to bring knowledge of economics and reading back to their hometown to help build a better community.

Princess Academy was not particularly memorable. The main portion of the book – where the girls attend the academy – is a bit slow going, and it felt like scene after scene featured their strict headmistress, Olanna, yelling at them and making them feel inferior. I found the quarry singing to be an interesting concept and wish it had been featured a bit more prominently as Miri slowly figures out the mystery of this magical communication system. The magic aspect is very low key throughout the novel and hardly feels present at all.

Overall, this was a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel that features some courageous female characters and some “boarding school” plot material. If you want magical kingdoms and princesses, you’d be better off reading any series by Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, or Patricia C. Wrede – all of whom feature more colorful “princess” characters and more intriguing world building. Despite this, the book was a satisfying read; don’t be put off by the title alone.

2009: The Graveyard Book (Life with the Dead)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is an interesting story of Bod, a boy whose family was killed but who lucks into a new family in the local graveyard. The ghosts raise and educate him, leading to an odd mix of lessons, depending partially on what era the ghost lived in. However, as Bod grows older, he realizes that the man who killed his family is still out there, and wants to kill him to finish the job. Through a combination of luck and ingenuity, Bod and his friends defeat the group of men intent on his death, thus bringing about the prediction that Bod will cause their downfall. As a consequence of the fight, though, Bod’s girlfriend loses her memory of him and moves away. Shortly thereafter, Bod’s graveyard powers start to fade, signaling his descent into adulthood. His guardian packs him off with a suitcase, passport, and money to make his way in the world. After getting over the hurt of another abandonment, Bod is excited to make his way in the world.

I wanted to like this more than I actually did. It took me quite a while to make it through because the plot wasn’t exactly riveting. The pacing also seemed a bit uneven to me, in that most of the book focused on small incidents unrelated to the main plot of the men who wanted to kill Bod. This was clearly a deliberate choice, at it enhanced the homey atmosphere of the story, but, well, I prefer a bit more action. IMO, Gaiman’s biggest strength is in his language use. The words are gorgeous and entertaining. The book is worth reading just for his amusing turns of phrase.