2015: El Deafo

VERDICT: Treasure!

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

El Deafo, a 2015 Newbery Honor recipient authored by Cece Bell, is an absolutely fantastic, loosely autobiographical graphic novel about the daily life of a girl. Cece (the main character) contracted meningitis when she was 4, which lead to substantial hearing loss. At first, no one realizes what has happened. When Cece’s parents finally do discover the hearing loss, a number of specialist visits culminate in hearing aids.

Cece heads off to kindergarten with a large hearing aid called a Phonic Ear. Because they live in a big city at that point, she is able to attend class exclusively for kids like her. However, the next year the family moves to a smaller town and Cece is the only deaf kid in her class. She feels very conspicuous and is afraid that no one will be friends with her.

Over time, Cece does indeed make friends with a number of other kids. However, she is still frequently lonely, as friendships ebb and flow. After realizing that her Phonic Ear hearing aid lets her hear the teacher no matter where in the building the teacher is, Cece begins to imagine herself as El Deafo, a superhero.

Eventually, Cece shares her super hearing with her class at school, so that everyone can “party” while the class is left alone to work silently on math. This forges a friendship with one of Cece’s neighbors, who helps her test the range of the hearing aid and becomes a true friend.

El Deafo is great because the characters are so realistic. No friendship/interaction is perfect – I suspect we all have friends who have at least one trait that bugs us. Cece is creative, keeps trucking even when friendship break, and finds the good in her differences, a real talent. I highly recommend this for mid-to-late elementary school readers and beyond. As I said, I enjoyed this Newbery selection greatly.

Below, the author talks a bit about her book:

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2016: Last Stop on Market Street

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Last Stop on Market Street, the highly acclaimed winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal as well as numerous other awards, is aimed at early elementary school children. As such, it’s a bit hard to judge against other Newbery Medal winners because it’s written at a completely different level.

The story told is that of a young boy and his grandmother, who have an entertaining bus ride to the final stop of the Market Street bus route. Along the way, the grandmother gently instructs the kid on how to interact with people. Everything is infused with her optimism and unique worldview. At the end of the bus ride, the duo arrive at a soup kitchen, where they help serve a meal.

The story is very simple; what really sells it are the beautiful illustrations, depicting a diverse community going about its daily life. The optimism is contagious and touching. I highly recommend this for younger kids; the language is simple enough that it’d likely work as a read-together book for those first learning to read.

2016 Honor: Roller Girl (they see me rollin, they hatin)

VERDICT: Treasure!

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

Roller Girl is the story of a girl who decides to sign up for roller derby camp. Astrid sees a flyer and decides to go for it. Her friend Nicole opts for dance class instead, though Astrid tells her mom that Nicole is doing roller derby with her. Classes are hard; Astrid is the only total beginner. However, she keeps with it, encouraged by anonymous correspondence with one of the women from the local roller derby team. Astrid gains in skills and confidence.

Along the way, Astrid makes new friends, but is also forced to realize that sometimes old friends grow apart. There is an incident with a soda and Nicole’s new friend. Astrid’s hard work on both roller derby and her friendships culminates in her playing in her first roller derby bout.

The illustrations are gorgeous and the main character extremely charming. Every person who has felt odd or different will relate to this book. This is one of my favorite Newbery books ever. Astrid isn’t perfect, but she makes some tough choices; the relationships presented in the book, similarly, aren’t perfect, but ring true because of that.

2014 Honor: One Came Home

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

One Came Home is a Western adventure story about a tenacious teenage girl who takes off on her own to solve a deadly mystery. Taking place in Wisconsin during 1871, an unidentifiable body shows up a few days after Georgie’s sister ran away from home. Everyone believes the body to be Agatha’s, except for Georgie, who decides to leave town to find out the truth of what happened to her sister. On her journey, she runs into some unwanted friends and some unsavory criminals, but ultimately has to find the inner strength to deal with her family’s tragedy.

Death plays a central role in the novel as Georgie goes through the grieving process while trying to figure out what happened to her sister. Her relationship with her sister’s former suitor, Billy, builds up nicely as they both have secrets they’ve kept from each other about her missing sister. Georgie is a strong heroine for young readers. She’s skilled with a rifle and doesn’t hesitate to use it to save her friend’s life. It’s fun to read about a girl who is placed in a masculine-heavy frontier setting and how she has adapted to this type of worldview.

The world building is interesting as well. A portion of the Georgie’s numerous flashbacks and interactions with her sister focuses on the skill of pigeoning as vast swarms of pigeons begin nesting in hordes in the rural Wisconsin landscape. The author weaves the history of this hunting sport into the overall mystery, adding to the ruggedness of the setting that Georgie finds herself in.

I found this book to be very enjoyable and would have given it a higher rating had the ending not let me down. While kid readers will not complain about the happily-ever-after resolution, the narrative felt like it was leading to a different place than where it actually ended up. While I enjoyed the adventure, the ending left me feeling unsatisfied.

Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to junior high students as a starting point into the Western genre. Though the beginning is a bit slow, Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home picks up when Georgie sets out on her own. The main character is a likable heroine, and her relationships with her family and townsfolk feel authentic and true to the time period, making for an entertaining adventure.

 

2016 Honor: The War That Saved My Life

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

I happened to snag The War That Saved My Life off the new books shelf because it looked vaguely familiar. It was only later that I realized it was a Newbery Honor title. I read The War That Saved My Life in one sitting; it was that good.

The protagonist of this book, Ada, has grown up unable to walk, locked in a London apartment by an abusive mother and prevented from communicating with the outside world. When WWII and the evacuation of children from the city begins, Ada’s mother intends only to send Jamie, her son, to the countryside. Ada is determined to go along; she secretly teaches herself to walk and escapes with Jamie before their mother realizes they’re gone.

Susan Smith is not prepared to take in children. She’s depressed after losing her friend fairly recently and generally recluse. However, the organizer for the villager gives her no choice. Despite her initial discomfort, Susan steps up to the task and creates an excellent life for the children, dealing with challenges like Jamie’s chronic bed wetting and Ada’s prickliness. Ada bonds with the pony Susan’s friend left her. It leads her on many adventures, including delivering a girl back to her house after a fall from a horse and helping foil a party of German spies. Slowly, Ada overcomes her reticence and panic attacks (described in a manner which made me think PTSD from the abuse her mother inflicted) to trust Susan.

Because Susan and the local doctor want to help Ada walk comfortably by surgically correcting her club feet, they attempt to contact Ada’s mother. After many months of no response, Ada’s mother unexpectedly shows up in the village; fearing she will be forced to pay benefits, she drags her children back to London. She takes all of Ada’s new clothes and sells her crutches, removing her ability to get around. This nearly turns fatal when a bomb hits close to their building and Jamie and Ada have to evacuate. Not one to be left behind, Ada manages to make it out of the building and to shelter. Shortly thereafter, Susan arrives in London to take the children back. When they return to the village, they find that Susan’s house was a casualty of bombing. Thus, the relationship between Ada and Susan, only made possible because of the war, saved them both, physically and emotionally.

As I mentioned, I loved this book and might even reread, which is rare with me and YA. The author does a remarkable job of capturing Ada’s mental and emotional state without locking the story in her head. There is a solid balance of character development and action. Ada is an amazingly strong heroine who never gives up. She’s not always likable – particularly towards the beginning when she’s still figuring out who to trust and how to read social cues – but she is always compelling. This is historical fiction at its finest.

The book is recommended for Grades 4-6, which seemed about right. Because of the description of abuse and its after-effects, as well as some relatively graphic descriptions of WWII battle injuries (Ada helps care for the soldiers who escaped Dunkirk), I’d be hesitant to read it with children much younger than Grade 4. However, children beyond Grade 6 may well enjoy the title, as I did myself.

Read alike: Good Night, Mr. Tom is the most obvious. It also features an abused child evacuated from London and has a similar ending.

 

2011 Honor: Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Joyce Sidman’s Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night is a collection of poetry that details the lives of the animals, plants and insects that thrive in the forest during the nighttime.

Each poem follows a different nighttime creature – owls, trees, moths, mushrooms, bats and crickets, just to name a few. The poetry is also accompanied by colorful illustrations drawn by illustrator Rick Allen and a small blurb that introduces readers to some scientific facts.

My favorite poems were both cute and wielded some fun word play. In “Welcome to the Night,” nighttime creatures are slowly awakening from the daytime nap. “Dark Emperor” deftly details the terror of a mouse that is hoping to get away sight unseen from a great horned owl. My favorite, though, was “I Am a Baby Porcupette,” where the nocturnal animal baby can still deal with any threat despite being small and cute.

This book was a quick read with some simplistic and lyrical poetry. While I didn’t find the poems to be great works of art, Dark Emperor is a fun way to introduce children to the creepy crawlies of the night and enhance their knowledge of animal and botany trivia.

2012 Honor: Breaking Stalin’s Nose – Advice from a talking nose

Laurinda’s Verdict: Treasure

Rating: 4/5

As you might suspect, given the title, 2012 Newbery Honor Breaking Stalin’s Nose is set in the USSR during the 1950’s. Our main character, Sasha Zaichik, is very excited that he will get to join the Young Pioneers; his father works for State Security and will be the one to induct him at a school assembly. However, Sasha’s life is thrown into disarray when his father is unexpectedly arrested during the night. Sasha runs to his aunt’s like he was told, only to have her husband tell Sasha to get lost. After a cold night spent in the boiler room, Sasha heads off to school.

What was supposed to be a happy day for him is now fraught. Sasha is constantly worried that someone will find out about his father’s arrest. Eventually, he is sent down to the basement to retrieve the banner for the Young Pioneers assembly. While bringing it upstairs, he bumps into the statue of Stalin, dislodging its nose. Fear of the consequences causes him to hallucinate Stalin’s nose talking to him.

When his class is called to answer for the crime of damaging the statue, one of Sasha’s classmates, who believes his parents are already imprisoned, claims that he did the damage, hoping to be reunited with them. After some hijinks, the class bully, whose parents were previously arrested, frames their teacher for the crime.

State Security first tries to recruit Sasha as a mole and then attempts to send the boys to an orphanage. Sasha runs to the prison to attempt to see his father. While in the multi-day queue, he meets a woman who offers her son’s cot. The end.

The author grew up in Soviet Russia and this infuses his work. He perfectly captures the sense of paranoia pervading society; he also traces the enthusiasm, and later disillusionment, of the main character. No one in the USSR was safe from the secret police. A neighbor turns Sasha’s father in to get the pair’s better living space; another classmate frames a hated teacher to get her removed from power, etc. Although we don’t see Sasha become too bitter, he is transformed from a blind little parrot of good indoctrinated values to a child who begins to see through the propaganda. The author creates some very poignant – and depressing – moments. My favorites, if you can call them that: The parents of the classmate hoping to go to jail to see them were previously executed; Sasha’s mother, an American, was executed and didn’t die at the hospital like he was told. So on and so forth. Combined with perfect illustrations, Breaking Stalin’s Nose presents a moving, grimly amusing, yet historically accurate portrayal of the 1950’s USSR.

I highly recommend this, particularly to fans of historical fiction. Mid to late elementary school or early middle school  would probably have the most interest, though the beautiful illustrations and plucky main character make this well worth reading for other ages.