2017: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 2017 Newbery Medal winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, tells a story with a magical cast of characters, including an ancient witch, a friendly swamp monster, a tiny dragon, and a girl who has consumed the power of moonlight.

The premise is great. The book cleverly turns some fairy tale tropes on their head – the wicked witch is actually a loving grandmother figure, the special child is the one causing havoc with her immense powers, and the typical hero becomes a bitter man out to get misguided justice.

The first hundred pages were really strong, focusing on the witch, Xan, and her dilemma of dealing with her mistake of putting the powerful magic of moonlight into Luna, a child she saved from being sacrificed. Her interactions with Glerk and Fyrian were great to read about, but the plot loses steam halfway through once Luna loses her memories of magic. By this point, the book became a chore to get through as the scope of the narrative expands to some plot points that didn’t really interest me. The ending, however, satisfyingly ties up all the emotional character beats.

The writing style is where I took issue with this book. With the constant point of view hopping, the narrative seemed to frantically shift whenever I just started to get into the plot of a certain character, resulting in many of the characters lacking depth. The narration makes the reader feel like an observer rather than a participant in the action – which I guess imitates the storytelling style of fairy tales.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I liked that the author was experimenting with different story components that you don’t often see in children’s books, but it failed to come together in an engaging way.

Recommended for lovers of fairy tales and magical beings.

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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.

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.

2004: The Tale of Despereaux (Stories Bring Light)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

The Tale of Despereaux, the 2004 Newbery Medal Winner authored by Kate diCamillo, is a whimsical variation on a classic story. Although everything comes right in the end, diCamillo taps into some of the darkness which originally pervaded fairy tales, playing with light and darkness both literally and figuratively. She weaves together the stories of four main characters, gradually pulling them closer together until they are interacting.

The title character, Despereaux, is a tiny mouse who cares about distinctly non mouselike pursuits – he loves to read and enjoys music so much that he accidentally meets the king and princess, with whom he falls in love. For betraying mouse-kind, Despereaux is sentenced to death, tied with a red string and thrown to the rats in the dungeon. His ability to tell a story saves him, as the jailer is starved for the light which storytelling brings.

Chiaroscuro, Roscuro for short, is a rat obsessed with light, brought on by a close encounter with the jailer’s candle. One night, he sneaks upstairs to watch a banquet from the chandelier. Roscuro is startled and plummets from the chandelier into the queen’s soup bowl, whereupon she dies. He slinks back to the dungeon, turning his fear into a perverted hatred-longing for the light.

Mig was sold by her father for the price of a hen, a lovely red tablecloth, and a few other bits and bobs. She’s nearly deaf from all the clouts on the ear she received from the man who bought her. In an odd twist of fate, soldiers coming to seize all pots and spoons (soup was outlawed after the Queen’s death), free Mig and take her to the castle.

Roscuro persuades Mig to kidnap the princess and take her to the dungeon. In a maneuver involved a few tail amputations, illegal soup, and a spool of red thread, Despereaux defuses the situation and rescues the princess. Life continues on, with the characters happier than before.

I greatly enjoyed this book. The author adds clever asides to the reader and does an impeccable job tying together the main narratives. The story is in turns amusing and touching. DiCamillo plays with the traditional fairy tale or heroic narrative, subverting it enough to make it fresh again. The illustrations are the perfect complement to the text. I would recommend this to almost anyone.