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.

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.

 

 

1966 Honor: The Animal Family (Lynxes, and Mermaids, and Bears, Oh My!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating 3.5/5

The Animal Family, written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is a small-format story written in a classic fairy tale style. A hunter, who has lived alone in the woods since his parents died, woos a mermaid by singing to her. She decides to move to land and live with him. The hunter eventually yearns for a child; rather than a human, he ends up with first a bear cub, then a lynx. Those two engage in many entertaining antics. Their best one, however, is rescuing a human baby whose mother died in a boat wreck. Everyone lives happily as a family.

This story was simple but surprisingly entertaining. The whimsy kept everything fresh. After the gross sexism of The Great Wheel, I particularly appreciated that the hunter never tried to change the mermaid. It didn’t matter how much one of her behaviours irritated him or vice versa.  In one case, the author writes,”Why should he want her to keep house? If you had a seal that could talk, would you want it to sweep the floor?” The Animal Family does have a happily-ever-after ending, with a slight twist. The very ending of the book is framed as a story told to the human boy, one he’s not sure he believes. His disbelief tilts the story such that readers are unsure whether the story really happened as told or not.

I highly recommend this as a read-together book for early elementary school readers. The format mirrors fairy tales, giving them a basis of familiarity. Slightly older children might enjoy reading this by themselves.

1949 Honor: My Father’s Dragon

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

In this amusing tale from 1949, a boy retells the story of how his father, when he himself was young, traveled to a far away island to rescue a baby dragon.

When his (used henceforth to refer to the father) mother ejects the alley cat which he has been feeding, the boy sets off to Wild Island to rescue an imprisoned baby dragon. Using his wits and the items he brought in his bag, he outsmarts a wide variety of hostile animals. Tigers are fond of chewing gum, the rhinoceros clearly wanted for a toothbrush and toothpaste with which to clean his horn, and the lion desperately needed a comb for his mane. In a final stroke of brilliance, the boy ties lollipops to the crocodiles’ tails to get them to form a bridge across the river.

The boy successfully frees the chained up baby dragon, and the two fly away together.

This is a simple children’s book, but the wittiness of the boy and the fabulous illustrations make this worth reading. It took maybe – maybe – half a lunch period to read, so it’s a quick and entertaining entry in the Newbery cannon.

2014: Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures (featuring poetry slammin’ squirrels)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is a humorous story of a girl and her escapades with her superhero companion – a squirrel.

Flora Belle Buckman is a natural born cynic and reader of comic books, a hobby that does not impress her mother. After a questionable incident with a vacuum cleaner, Flora finds a squirrel in her backyard and discovers that he has superpowers – he can now write poetry on the typewriter and fly through the air. Unfortunately, her mother only sees the squirrel as a pest and spends the rest of the novel trying to get rid of it.

This novel was a delightful read with its quirky characters and fluffy plot. Flora’s cynicism works well with the squirrel’s simple animalistic thoughts. The characters are both colorful and likeable. Most of the conflict centers around Flora’s insecurities with her mother and how she feels like she doesn’t really understand her. Centering the novel around family gives the characters’ interactions a bit more substance and background, since most of the characters lack seriousness and depth.

The best part of the novel was the author’s inclusion of comic strip illustrations in each chapter. If anything, I wish these would have been utilized more as they give the novel a comic book-like feeling since, after all, the book is about a flying superhero squirrel.

Flora & Ulysses is a light read that focuses on what it means to be family. Kid readers would most likely enjoy Flora’s exploits and her cute interactions with her heroic pet squirrel.

2014: The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses (Squirrel Superhero Saves the Day)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 2014 Newbery Medal Winner, The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate diCamillo, is an entertaining romp with a quirky main character and a highly unconventional superhero. Flora Belle is a slightly misanthropic 12-year-old who is obsessed with comic books. One day, an unlikely accident occurs: the neighbour woman vacuums up a squirrel. That squirrel survives and, Flora is convinced, gains superpowers. She names him Ulysses. The two become partners on many further adventures.

Flora’s mother becomes the villain in the story when she instructs her ex-husband to kill Ulysses. Instead, he helps Flora keep Ulysses safe, as does Flora’s next door neighbour and her great-nephew. Eventually, a detente is reached in which everyone acknowledges Ulysses’s superpowers (how many other squirrels can type poetry, after all?) and Flora reconciles with her mother.

Although the titular adventures are silly things like Ulysses flying in the doughnut shop, the narrative includes a more serious layer in which it confronts common adolescent issues like finding friends, coping with divorced parents at an age when parents are inherently annoying, and having your interests invalidated. It addresses all in a fresh, non-cliched manner.

While this book didn’t have the “Wow!” factor for me that some of the other recent entries did, it’s a solid Newbery entry featuring a unique narrative and amusing illustrations. I particularly recommend it for middle grade readers who struggle with any of the issues discussed above, as well as those who love animals.

 

2013: The One and Only Ivan (Art Activism)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The 2013 Newbery Medal Winner, The One and Only Ivan, is the touching story of Ivan, a gorilla held in a tawdry “circus”. The entire narrative is from Ivan’s perspective. Ivan was born in the wild but grew up in captivity; only the stories Stella the elephant told and the art which Julia (human) helped him produce kept him sane. Once Ivan is fully grown, he stops attracting circus visitors. Mack, the owner, decides to bring in Ruby, a baby elephant. Shortly thereafter, Stella dies from an untreated foot infection. Ivan promises Stella that he won’t let Ruby grow up in their circus.

To that end, he uses the paint and paper Julia bring him to create a message which she convinces her dad to put on the billboard. This eventually leads to inspections and the seizure of Ivan, Ruby, and all the other animals. They are moved to a proper zoo, where Ivan relearns how to be an ape and Ruby has the company of other elephants.

The words are pretty simple, but the message is profound. Every animal has feelings and small actions can make a big difference. Creativity matters. Ivan, for example, frets over how to keep his promise to Stella before figuring out how to “write” on multiple sheets of paper, creating a message for the billboard. Julia understands Ivan’s message, and her father George puts it up on the billboard, despite knowing that it will likely cost him his job. The One and Only Ivan is a moving story of inter-species cooperation.

This would be perfect for people who enjoy animal stories. It is designed for kids from 3rd through 7th grade, but there is much for adults to appreciate.