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.

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1984 Honor: A Solitary Blue (Heron, or Boy)

VERDICT: Meh

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

A Solitary Blue, one of the 1984 Newbery Honor selections, is set in the same universe as Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, the 1983 Newbery Medal Winner, reviewed by Sally and I. It follows Jeffrey from roughly ages 6-17. A Solitary Blue focuses heavily on relationships and emotions. When Jeff is in early elementary school, his vivacious mother Melody, always involved superficially in a cause, walks out for the final time, leaving Jeff with his very reserved father. Jeff always calls his father The Professor. Jeff decides that homeostasis is the way to go, so as he grows up, he increasingly takes on the task of keeping everything neat and orderly for The Professor.

When Jeff is in middle school, he comes down with a bad case of pneumonia. His father doesn’t initially realise he is sick; it takes the intervention of kind family freed Brother Brian to knock The Professor out of his shell. The illness also leads to renewed contact between Melody and the family she left behind, including an invitation for Jeff to spend the summer with her in Charleston.

The first summer Jeff spends in Charleston is freeing. His emotional mother helps him express himself fully. Jeff is immersed in the luxury which his extended family’s income affords them, while still having the freedom to go exploring the city. The transition back to life with his reserved father is challenging. With the memory of the first summer, Jeff has high hopes for another one. However, things are much different. His mother is dismissive of him or away with her boyfriend much of the time, his older relatives are hateful, and the experience is unpleasant. On one of the last nights Jeff has there, he has a knockdown fight in which his mother verbally destroys him, to which he responds somewhat in kind. Jeff is overwrought and takes the boat he purchased earlier in the summer out to an island he had been exploring. He finally finds a bit of solace in a solitary blue heron.

Life isn’t much better when he gets home, as he feels incredibly betrayed by his mother; he takes to skipping school. This actually provides an opening for a growing relationship with his father once The Professor discovers what’s going on; the two bond over mutual hurt. At his dad’s suggestion, the two look for a new house and find a lovely cabin, sealed with the presence of a blue heron.

Although not always easy – his mother claims she’s going to sue for custody when his parent’s divorce is finalized, for example – Jeff makes friends in his new home, including with the Tillerman family from Dicey’s Song. It comes as a surprise to Jeff when his great grandmother leaves him the estate. He chooses to keep her engagement ring but pass the rest along to the former household staff. His final interaction with his capricious and manipulative mother is when she arrives asking about the ring. To be quits of her, he trades rings with her, keeping the one that is tied to family history while allowing her the monetarily valuable one.

This is not an easy book to read. I basically alternated which parent I wanted to scream at initially. My heart broke for Jeff at times, particularly when his mother deliberately attempted to manipulate him. It deals a lot with emotions and relationships and less so with action. The author’s character development keeps it from being a complete snore, but it’s still a pretty angsty book. I went through a phase when I was in middle school when this over-the-top angst might have appealed. As an adult, it was a bit much. However, I appreciated the book for dealing with some of the hard parts of both severing and establishing relationships, as well as the author’s lovely description of the natural beauty which soothed Jeff’s soul. It’s not bad, but neither do I recommend it highly.

1958 Honor: The Great Wheel (with not-so-great characters)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson was one of the 1958 Newbery Honor recipients. God knows why. More on that later.

Conn sets out from Ireland bound for his Uncle Michael’s New York business. On the voyage, he meets Trudy, a lovely German girl bound for Wisconsin. In NYC, Conn quickly learns the business of digging sewers and becomes his uncle’s right hand man. However, Aunt Honora had predicted that Conn would travel west and ride a great wheel. Enter Uncle Patrick, who hires Conn to work on a project Mr. Ferris is creating for the Chicago World’s Fair. Conn moves west and helps with every phase of construction of the first Ferris Wheel, a now familiar staple of fairs and carnivals. He also dreams of meeting Trudy there and writes her letters (which he can’t mail since he didn’t get her last name). Lo, during the last week of the fair, Trudy arrives! A shocker, I know. Conn gets hung up over Trudy’s family money, so it takes the pair until the last day of the fair to sort out their differences. They marry and move to Wisconsin to raise fat, happy cows and children.

The Good: If you’ve ever wondered how a Ferris Wheel is built, this is the perfect book for you. It goes into a fair amount of detail (way more than I cared about, for sure) on each stage of the construction. The illustrations are also excellent.

The Bad: Pacing is uneven and the character development is minimal. Secondary characters are caricatures built on stereotypes, lashed together with racial or ethnic epithets.

The Ugly: This book is BRIMMING with objectionable names. Every minor character’s nationality/group is mentioned before each appearance, and generally tagged with slang like mick, box head, etc. I realize some of this appears worse in hindsight than it would in its own context, but it’s still jarring. Sexism also runs rampant, highlighted in passages like this.

I’d conditionally recommend this for late elementary/early middle schoolers with a strong interest in engineering or construction. Beyond that, this book is better left forgotten.

1997 Honor: Ella Enchanted

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Ella Enchanted was one of the 1997 Newbery Honor books. Written by Gail Carson Levine, it is a riff on the familiar Cinderella story. Ella is “blessed” with obedience by a fairy who attended her christening. She is forced to follow any command given to her. While her mother is alive, this is a mildly annoying burden; Ella develops a strong will and a quick wit to escape through loopholes. However, after her mother dies, her father sends Ella off to finishing school with the daughters of a woman who will be Ella’s stepmother.

Hattie, one of the wicked stepdaughters, figures out Ella’s curse and uses it to torment her. After Ella is ordered to break a friendship with the only other girl at school who understands her, Ella runs away. Adventures ensue. Ella is captured by ogres and uses her knowledge of their language to turn their powers against them; refreshingly, Ella’s friend Prince Char and his knights arrive only after Ella has the situation well in hand. Ella proceeds to a giant’s wedding in the hopes of convincing Lucinda, the fairy who set the curse, to remove it. She is unsuccessful, but meets up with her father. Shortly thereafter, he remarries and Ella is forced into servitude.

Ella understands that the kingdom would be unsafe if she gave in to Prince Char’s wish that she marry him, so she fabricates a letter from Hattie saying that Ella ran away to marry a rich man. However, Ella can’t resist attending Prince Char’s homecoming balls; they fall in love all over again. The strain of her stepsister’s commands warring with Char’s love eventually allows Ella to break the spell, whereupon she marries Char.

This book was one of my all time favorites as a child. I read it over and over and over (what? I’m an obsessive rereader of my favorite books). It’s still entertaining as an adult. I know it will never happen, but I would love to see the author rewrite this as a more fully realized YA novel rather than a kid’s book. Both the world building and the character development fit the scope quite well, but leave me wondering about other details of the world and of the characters.

I highly recommend this to mid elementary school to early middle school readers who enjoy a story where the princess rescues herself. The blend of action and well developed characters, both primary and secondary, keep the reader’s attention and make this a fast read.

1931 Honor: Mountains Are Free

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

One of the 1931 Newbery Honor books, Mountains Are Free tells one of the most famous snippets in Swiss history, that of William Tell. It is narrated by a boy who is living with the Tell family when he sees passing knights. He attracts their attention and is taken with them to Austria. Unfortunately, the knight who grabbed him is a hot-tempered bastard and nearly kills the kid by forcing him to climb a four story, smooth sided building for entertainment.

That incident leads the Duke to seize BOY and adds him to the court as an archer. Kyo, the court minstrel, teaches him a few basics of court and helps him escape further notice. The boy also falls for Zelina, a noble girl who is nearly forced into marriage with EVIL KNIGHT. To escape the marriage, all three flee back to Switzerland.

Aided by winter, the trio settle in to the area. When an unreasonable overlord is appointed to Switzerland, tension builds. In a crystallizing moment, William Tell is arrested for failing to bow before the magistrate’s hat. He turns the tables on his captors, and the cantons rise. The boy takes out his former captor with a morningstar and the Swiss wipe out the spoiled noble Austrian army sent against them. Zelina and the boy finally express their affection for one another and she chooses to remain with him for the moment rather than try to reclaim her lands.

Overall, the storytelling was entertaining and well-paced. The main character was decent, but the secondary characters (and the setting) are what really made the story, particularly Kyo. He initially is difficult to deal with, but is genuinely a tender character who does his best to care for both children. The villains are overdrawn and less than convincing, but the style fits the semi-mythological nature of the story.

I would recommend this for those who enjoy decently written historical fiction and stories of distant times and lands. The flow is good and Mountains Are Free is a fast read.

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.

 

2012: Dead End in Norvelt (Old Killing the Old)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

Jack Gantos’s mildly autobiographical novel, Dead End in Norvelt, was the 2012 Newbery Medal Winner. It features Jack Gantos as he navigates the joys and pains of growing up in a small town. Jack’s summer is almost immediately “ruined” when his mother volunteers him to help old Miss Volker. Involvement with her leads to a much more interesting summer than Jack could have imagined.

Norvelt, a town built during the Depression by Eleanor Roosevelt, is dying, one resident at a time. It’s a hard town to live in. Jack’s mother and father clash over it: his dad wants to move, while his mother is loyal to the town. Jack is often torn between the two, most memorably when his dad orders him to destroy the field of corn his mother planted; his dad bought an airplane and needs somewhere to build a landing strip. Jack earns himself a complete grounding for the summer. However, his mother still lets him out to help Miss Volker.

Miss Volker, a former nurse, is now crippled by arthritis and borrows Jack’s hands for her primary duties: serving as the town medical examiner and the writer of obituaries. She is much in demand over the summer, as original Norvelt residents start dropping like flies. Initially, their deaths appear banal. The sheer quantity and coincidence of the deaths eventually arouses suspicion and the final corpse is sent off for a proper autopsy. It is discovered that they were all poisoned with rat poison. Suspicion initially rests on Miss Volker, who helped prepare meals for the elderly residents, but eventually settles on town busybody Mr. Spizz. He poisoned the remaining Norvelt residents because Miss Volker once vowed not to marry him until all the original residents were dead.

This book is entertaining in a rambling, homey sort of way. The narrator has a well defined voice, as do the secondary characters. I loved how quirky they were. They were what kept me reading. The plot was not as delightful as the characters. While it was moderately entertaining, it served more as a foil for the characters than a point of interest in-and-of itself. The author didn’t emphasize the deaths as potential murders, and, while that was nominally the main plot, there wasn’t much tension or build-up. Basically, this is a happy-go-lucky tale of growing up.

I’d recommend this for someone looking for a relaxing story about small town life. There’s not much angst but enough character development to give you an amusing story.