2018 Honor: Long Way Down

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down is the type of book I wish I had been assigned to read in freshmen year of high school. It has everything you need for a great teen school novel – a trending and impactful theme, inherent symbolism and an unconventional narrative device.

The plot is simple: 15-year-old Will, who is currently in an elevator descending to the bottom floor of his building, has to decide whether he’ll follow the unspoken rules of the community and avenge his brother’s murder – or walk away and break the cycle of violence.

Told in verse, the story delves into the emotions and mindset of someone who has lost many friends and family members to murders and random shootings throughout his life, and Will’s 60 second elevator ride brings him to the tipping point. The verse is less poetry and more like a script which makes his inner dialogues more interesting to read. This book really stands out from the countless other young adult novels that are currently being published due to its narrative structure.

The only reason this didn’t get a 5/5 from me was because I’m not the biggest fan of verse and the ending is super abrupt.

This 2018 Newbery Honor was a very quick and thought-provoking read. Its themes make it more suitable for a teen audience than a middle school one in my opinion, but it explores a heavy topic in an accessible and unique way.

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2018: Hello, Universe (it’s a small, small world)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe is an adventure tale about a group of children who band together despite not knowing each other to find a boy who fell down a well trying to rescue his pet guinea pig.

What I liked:

  • A diverse cast of characters who aren’t always prominently featured in children’s books. Each characterization was very distinct, despite all characters being children, and the point of view changes between each chapter were seamless.
  • Valencia Somerset’s point of view – an interesting mesh of religiosity, her experiences being deaf, and her curiosity and naievete about the world.
  • The plot was quick-paced with a good build up to the central conflict.
  • Animals (including a guinea pig, squirrel, dog and snake) are all featured in the main adventure and will make animal lovers feel warm and fuzzy.

What I didn’t like:

  • This is definitely a children’s book. As an adult reader, I didn’t find much substance in its themes, and the narrative style is written more for a fifth and sixth grade audience. For children this is definitely a plus, but I didn’t get a whole lot out of the book.
  • Kaori. I’m not the biggest fan of faux fortune teller fictional characters that believe fully in their powers. I found her enthusiasm slightly grating.

Overall, Hello, Universe provides some mindless, adventurous fun featuring a diverse cast of characters.

2018 Honor: Piecing Me Together

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 5/5

The 2018 Newbery Honor Piecing Me Together is a thoughtful novel about race, privilege and relationships.

Jade’s character growth is what makes this novel great to read. As the one of the few black girls at the private high school she attends, the aspiring artist starts the novel with no confidence to voice her own desires – feeling like she has no friends, struggling with body image issues, and strong armed into joining a Woman to Woman mentorship program that will allow her the chance to go to college. But the mentorship program ends up being not what she expected, and Jade struggles to connect with her new mentor since they have very different backgrounds and interests despite having gone to the same high school.

I really enjoyed seeing things happen from Jade’s perspective. She encounters a variety of problems throughout the novel like daily microaggressions happening in her school, being seen as a charity case by her mentor, and hearing about police brutality in the news but she steps up to become a great role model to those around her as she realizes that the only person who can make a positive difference in her life is herself – by speaking out through her art and voicing her opinions to the people she feels aren’t understanding her point of view.

The book really immersed me into Jade’s world, and I finished the book wanting to read more about Jade’s future endeavors. It was great to see a variety of supporting characters that didn’t fit the normal YA stereotypes, and each character felt like they had a compelling motivation for whatever they said or did. There were no easy answers to Jade’s problems.

This is a slow and subdued read with coming of age themes that are very relevant to the world today. I’d recommend Renee Watson’s book for anyone looking for a young adult novel with themes of empowerment, friendship and identity.

2001 Honor: Hope was Here (Diner Dash with a side of politics)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

When Hope moves to a small town in Wisconsin with her aunt to work at a diner, she unexpectedly gets caught up in local politics when she begins campaigning for the good-hearted leukemia-stricken cook who is running against a corrupt mayor.

I really struggled to finish Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor Hope was Here and had to force myself to finish the book. The book never presents any complex issues throughout the campaign, and there was only so much I could take of reading about the ins and outs of waitressing. The characters were flat and filled their stereotypical small town roles to a tee. There was the obvious hero and the obvious villain, and the book seemingly ignores and childproofs the murky waters of politics. It was just a bit too sugary for me.

I will give this book credit for the fact that is does promote activism in a high school setting which makes it very relevant to modern day readers and may encourage children to take an interest in what is happening in their own town. As Hope gets more involved in politics, she has to rally her classmates to help with the campaign and lead by example. She is a great role model in this sense. I can see this appealing for those to want to read a simple, optimistic story about how activism can change things for the better.

However, this just wasn’t my type of book. I appreciate the story the author was trying to tell, but the sweet tone and bland characters quickly made me lose interest in the narrative.

2014 Honor – Doll Bones

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

Doll Bones by Holly Black, a 2014 Newbery Honor winner, is a story about stories, about growing up, and about one creepy doll. Alice, Poppy, and Zach have been playing together for a long time. Using a variety of action figures and dolls, they create their own stories. On the brink of adolescence, Zach’s dad feels that dolls aren’t manly, and throws out all of Zach’s figures. This precipitates changes in the friends’ relationship. It also causes Poppy to pull The Queen, an antique bone china doll, out of the case in which it is typically displayed.

And then, The Queen appears in Poppy’s dreams, telling her that the doll is made of a young woman’s bones, bones that must be laid to rest. Poppy talks Alice and Zach into undertaking a real life quest. Without parental permission, they buy bus tickets to the city in which the doll was made, and set off on a quest of their own. Like any good heroes, they face various obstacles along the way. They don’t always meet them with grace, but they do overcome them eventually. They succeed in their quest, and in hashing out a way forward in lives that dawning adolescence was making unfamiliar.

I listened to this as an audio book and really enjoyed it. There aren’t any jump scares, just some of the usual creepiness of dolls – eyes open when they shouldn’t be, clearly cremains inside the doll body, adults around them thinking they were a party of 4 when only 3 actual children existed, etc. The author balances adventure with the hard work of preteens negotiating relationships between each other in a way that children don’t do as self-consciously. She also integrates the store of Eleanor (the girl whose bones were used in the making of the doll), revealing that story piece by piece, with information integrated as a method for moving the plot along.

As a librarian,  I was also amused, and appreciative, of the author making the librarian VERY non-stereotypical. She also showed some of the realities of dying towns – kids were upset that the library was closed on the weekend, librarian found them because she was coming in to do selection and ordering when the library was closed, etc.

Late elementary school and middle school is the target audience, with some complexities to the relationship stuff that might skew it more towards the middle school side, just because kids a bit older have started to deal with those issues in their own lives.

Non-Newbery: A Monster Calls

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

This is an absolutely heart breaking, beautiful book. It was written by Patrick Ness from ideas left by Siobhan Dowd, when she died of cancer.

A “monster” – The Green Man, Lugh, it has gone by many names over time – appears one night in Conor’s backyard. His mother is sick, and he can’t accept that. The monster tells the boy stories, which are woven into the narrative, alternating with the boy’s life. Bullying, and the monster’s stories, are the only times when Conor feels “seen” by those around him. The adults around him, in their haste to be sympathetic, let Conor get away with anything, making him feel invisible. This, in turn, leads to actions to force them to deal with him.

Conor is also plagued by a nightmare in which his mother is falling over a cliff, and he can’t hold on. The monster helps him figure out why the nightmare happens and forces it to its conclusion – Conor letting go of his mom. The monster also sits with Conor while his mother dies in real life.

There were ugly tears, and a lot of them, while I was reading the book. The narration style is fairly simple, but the message profound. The monster’s tales aren’t simple, moralizing passages, but present fairly complex truths. Their integration with Conor’s life is well handled and heightens both. I highly recommend this for everyone. I’d say middle school and up will get the most out of it. It’d be fine for younger readers that don’t get scared very easily – no gore or objectionable language, some bullying, and, of course, death.

2017: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

VERDICT: Meh. Treasure….ish?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

I read this book about six months ago. I was so meh about it that the review has sat half finished since then. The Good: The plot is original and plays with some of the common tropes of fairytales, like “wicked” witches and monsters in the woods. It features strong, multi-faceted female characters, who do their own rescuing. There are Magic and Monsters and Good vs. Evil. The Bad: The style is awkward. It speaks pseudo fairytalese, but doesn’t quite commit. It also shifts between characters a bit to frequently. I found myself skimming the last hundred or so pages, hoping desperately that the book would FINALLY end.

Overall, give this is a try if you like fantasy or fairytales. Just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean you won’t!