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:

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.

 

1997: The View From Saturday (Crazy Random Happenstance)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The View From Saturday, the 1997 Newbery Medal Winner, tells the inter-related stories of the four 6th-graders who comprise a trivia team. Noah’s story focuses on his role in helping to organize the wedding of two of his grandparent’s friends, including serving as best man after the original injures himself. Nadia talks about visiting her father in Florida and, after sulking for a while, helping her grandfather and his wife rescue newly hatched sea turtles. Ethan, whose grandmother married Nadia’s grandfather, tells of his daily experience riding the bus to school; there, he meets Julian, an Indian-American kid who recently moved into a local historical home. The four begin gathering for afternoon tea on Saturday, learning about one another and exploring a variety of activities. Julian is the final kid to narrate a chapter. He makes the choice to interfere in a potentially harmful prank, even though he might get caught.

Mrs. Olinski, the kid’s paraplegic sixth-grade teacher, is back teaching for the first time since her accident. She chooses the four students for the trivia contest without knowing that they’re already a team. With her expert coaching and their dedication, The Souls win the highest level of competition and help give Mrs. Olinski back a sense of belonging and purpose.

The Good: Seeing how all the individual stories tie together, which mostly occurs towards the end of the book, is quite interesting. Mrs. Olinski is fleshed out and not defined by her wheelchair use. Konigsburg delves into Olinski’s mental processes a bit, but also gives glimpses of daily tasks that are different for those who use wheelchairs.

The Bad: The individual stories are utterly random and the children who narrate less than enthralling. Nadia, in particular, is a whiny brat during her visit to her father. Even when the stories come together and make something more than their parts, they don’t add up to an interesting “whole”.

While this book was mildly entertaining, I don’t recommend it. Most of it was tedious and none of the good parts were awesome enough to overcome the majority of the writing. It’s not a terrible book; if found in earlier decades, it might even have counted as a decent one, but, against the increased readability and interest of the recent Newbery winners, The View from Saturday falls flat.

1971: The Summer of the Swans (In which swans play very little part)

VERDICT: Trash?

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

Summer of the Swans primarily focuses on the relationship between awkward teenager Sarah and her mentally handicapped brother Charlie. Sarah is in the self-criticism phase of growing up; she spends much of the book moaning to her older sister about what she hates about herself, from the orange shoes she dyed puce to her skinny legs. However, Sarah has a genuine affection for her brother Charlie. She sees it as her duty to watch out for him. One evening, Charlie leaves the house alone, looking for the swans Sarah took him to see earlier in the evening. He becomes very lost, panicking his family. Sarah, with the help of her former-enemy, brings Charlie home, in the process gaining a greater sense of self-worth.

I’m pretty neutral on this book. Didn’t hate it but it wasn’t riveting either. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a younger sister with Down’s Syndrome, so the relationship between Sarah and Charlie felt very familiar to me. Sarah sprayed someone with a hose because they were taunting her by calling her brother retarded. I almost punched someone for similar reasons when I was in elementary school. The need to protect a sibling, even if they occasionally frustrate you, is strong.

The Good:

The Sarah/Charlie relationship is extremely well drawn and realistic, as I’ve discussed above. I also liked the stylistic choice to include chapters written from Charlie’s perspective. Besides explaining what happens while Charlie is alone, the author does a good job of getting inside Charlie’s head. Rather than portraying him as simple or a less competent child, the author reveals why Charlie makes the choices he does; Charlie often reacts to stimuli differently than “average” people. The sympathy with which the author portrays Charlie makes Charlie the more interesting, developed character in Summer of the Swans.

The Bad:

Sarah. Especially in scenes where it’s just her and Wanda, the older sister, talking. She’s annoying, judgmental, and hasty in her actions. While the story is about her development, she’s still a grating character. The plot is frustrating in that external validation matters greatly to Sarah, who is afraid of being judged. Although finding Charlie is the high point of the book, Sarah getting asked to a part by – gasp – a boy is a close second. Of course, it was pretty hilarious when she forgot color theory while trying to dye her sneakers. Orange and blue rarely mix into an attractive hue…

I’d recommend this for siblings of people with disabilities. That part of the book is well done, and it’s an issue not talked about as frequently/portrayed in significant depth in many other books.

1967: Up A Road Slowly (Diary of a Needy Kid)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The 1967 Newbery Medal Winner, Up a Road Slowly, is a very mixed story. The initial section of the book covers Julie’s move to the country and her life with Aunt Cordelia, a strict but loving spinster who teaches in the rural school. Julie struggles with loneliness, especially after her beloved older sister marries. Like many young children, Julie is fairly self-centered and abrasive to those around her. However, she does show growth in this section, especially after a wise train conductor gives her the advice that she isn’t the Number 1 person in all relationships. Though she doesn’t become truly empathetic towards people, she is slightly less of a little beast to those around her.

The second part of the book, as Sally discussed, is focused on Julie’s relationships with the opposite sex. I won’t repeat what Sally’s already said, but will merely add that I sat in my living room, screaming at Julie to kick her manipulative boyfriend’s butt to the curb, especially when it became ridiculously obvious that he was not just a user but also someone who was willing to take what he wanted from the relationship by force. Thankfully, Julie’s bumbling Uncle Haskell intervenes before Brett can hurt her. Of course, Julie ends up with Danny, the beloved boy who had known her since she moved in with Cordelia.

The Good
The author does an excellent job, particularly in the first part of the narrative, emphasizing the consequences of Julie’s actions and demonstrates how Julie learns from some of her bad choices. My favorite scene, although hard to read, was the repeated bullying which Julie spearheaded against a developmentally disabled (and smelly) classmate. Tired of Aggie sitting close to her, Julie invents a “game” whereby Aggie is dubbed Queen and sent to sit in the center of the circle, with the backs of everyone to her. Julie even cancels her birthday party rather than invite Aggie. Poor Aggie dies shortly thereafter, a hard event for Julie, who visited the day before Aggie died and saw the conditions in which she lived. The author includes a conversation between Julie and Uncle Haskell which presents an even harder truth. ” ‘You know very well that if this Kilpin girl could approach you again, as moronic and distasteful as she was a month ago, that you’d feel the same revulsion for her.’…He was right, of course.” Rather than jump to the easy answer of Julie swearing “Oh, I’ll never treat someone like that again”, the author forces Julie, and we the readers, to reckon with what our true behaviour might be. As someone with a disabled sister, I would have been livid at this type of treatment towards her, but I also realize how challenging it can be for children to interact with those who are different. Like many an older sister, I alternately wanted to protect my little sib from the oft cruel world and gain freedom from her to hang out with my friends without interruptions.

The integration of literature and poetry into the narrative also was well executed, with Julie developing an organic interest in it by linking classics to her life, and interpreting them through her own lens. I loved when she makes a comment about wishing Brett would quote Shakespeare, immediately followed by him calling her nicknames “from the dessert menu of a fancy restaurant”. Although we learn of Julie’s dream of being a writer relatively late in the story, enough hints are inserted along the way that it doesn’t seem out of place  when she approaches Uncle Haskell for help with her writing.

The Bad
While there were extremely thought-provoking, sensitive passages, Julie was a narrator I really had trouble empathizing with. She’s something of a tomboy (all to the good) but independent in a very prickly way, and rarely in the situations that I would have liked her to be. She feels that she needs a man, a point emphasized even by the sensible, unmarried Aunt Cordelia. This, of course, led to the whole Brett debacle. Julie rarely advances on her own merits, but rather through those of others. Even her first published piece is due to Uncle Haskell submitting it without her knowledge. Her lack of agency in the areas that matter most – career, love life, etc. bother me a lot, because we see hints early on that she could be so much stronger and less needy. Julie is always defined by her relationships with others, not by her own choices.

I think part of why this bothers me is because I’m very emphatically the opposite in that I have never defined myself in this manner or felt that I NEEDED to be with a person because of societal expectations. This theme is precisely why the book got a 2.5 from me. Otherwise, its semi-realistic portrayal of the pains of growing up might have drawn me in rather than antagonizing me. It treats hard topics, like alcoholism, death, and shifting familial relationships, with sensitivity and depth, but the dating relationships focus of the last third or so ruined the whole book.