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.

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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.

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.

2006 Honor: Princess Academy

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy is about a fourteen-year-old girl who attends the princess academy and by the end of her lessons will have the chance of the lifetime to be picked by the prince to be his bride.

This book very much reads like a fairy tale. Miri lives up in the mountain lands of Eskel, where working in a quarry is the main way of life. When a soothsayer predicts that the next queen will come from her village, all the town’s teen girls are rounded up and sent to the academy to learn the manners, etiquette, and skills that a future princess will need to know. The sharp contrast between her former easy-going life and the strictness of the new academy brings out her boldness and desire to learn all she can. Miri’s a fun heroine to follow as she is a natural-born leader, and her relationships with her crush Peder and best friend Britta are fun to watch develop.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn’t focus much on the competition between the girls to win the title of Academy Princess; instead, it focuses on their growing friendships with each other. The girls’ education is a major focus of the novel, and it provides a viewpoint in how knowledge and learning are perceived by different social classes. While the girls begin the book uneducated, they are able to bring knowledge of economics and reading back to their hometown to help build a better community.

Princess Academy was not particularly memorable. The main portion of the book – where the girls attend the academy – is a bit slow going, and it felt like scene after scene featured their strict headmistress, Olanna, yelling at them and making them feel inferior. I found the quarry singing to be an interesting concept and wish it had been featured a bit more prominently as Miri slowly figures out the mystery of this magical communication system. The magic aspect is very low key throughout the novel and hardly feels present at all.

Overall, this was a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel that features some courageous female characters and some “boarding school” plot material. If you want magical kingdoms and princesses, you’d be better off reading any series by Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, or Patricia C. Wrede – all of whom feature more colorful “princess” characters and more intriguing world building. Despite this, the book was a satisfying read; don’t be put off by the title alone.

2009: The Graveyard Book (Life with the Dead)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is an interesting story of Bod, a boy whose family was killed but who lucks into a new family in the local graveyard. The ghosts raise and educate him, leading to an odd mix of lessons, depending partially on what era the ghost lived in. However, as Bod grows older, he realizes that the man who killed his family is still out there, and wants to kill him to finish the job. Through a combination of luck and ingenuity, Bod and his friends defeat the group of men intent on his death, thus bringing about the prediction that Bod will cause their downfall. As a consequence of the fight, though, Bod’s girlfriend loses her memory of him and moves away. Shortly thereafter, Bod’s graveyard powers start to fade, signaling his descent into adulthood. His guardian packs him off with a suitcase, passport, and money to make his way in the world. After getting over the hurt of another abandonment, Bod is excited to make his way in the world.

I wanted to like this more than I actually did. It took me quite a while to make it through because the plot wasn’t exactly riveting. The pacing also seemed a bit uneven to me, in that most of the book focused on small incidents unrelated to the main plot of the men who wanted to kill Bod. This was clearly a deliberate choice, at it enhanced the homey atmosphere of the story, but, well, I prefer a bit more action. IMO, Gaiman’s biggest strength is in his language use. The words are gorgeous and entertaining. The book is worth reading just for his amusing turns of phrase.

 

2009: The Graveyard Book (The Only Living Boy in the Cemetery)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book follows the adventures of a boy who grows up in a graveyard, raised and educated by the supernatural beings that eternally live there. While there are plenty of interesting people who reside within its boundaries, Nobody Owens has always been intrigued by what else lies beyond it in the normal world. And it turns out that if he leaves the graveyard, the mysterious man who murdered his family will find him and finish the job.

While I enjoyed this Newbery Medal winner very much, the main character had a hard time keeping my interest. Instead, I found all of his friends – both supernatural and human – to have a lot more depth and background than Bod. Bod himself is a very curious boy, but his innocence and lack of connection to the real world make him somewhat hard to relate to.

The cast of characters that round out this novel more than make up for Bod’s shortcomings. His guardian Silas is a being neither living nor dead who has a mysterious, dark past. Scarlett is a young girl who happens upon the cemetery and becomes friends with Bod. Other characters such as ghosts, witches and werewolves also make an appearance.

The worldbuilding makes this book an exciting read with different supernatural beings having different backgrounds, rules and beliefs. Each chapter is essentially its own story, with an overall story line connecting all the incidents together, wherein Bod explores someplace new or meets someone else who lives there. While the book mainly takes place in the graveyard, Bod’s interactions with everyone allow him to experience the world through different eyes. I found myself enjoying the different stories that were told by his new friends and wished I could have been reading about their adventures instead.

The book has a satisfactory ending with a touch of melancholy coming through in the final few chapters. This would definitely be a great read around Halloween and would appeal to those who enjoy the supernatural.

1985: The Hero and the Crown (a girl and her horse)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating 4/5

On the surface, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown tells the tale of a girl who secretly trains to fight a black dragon and throughout the adventure finds her destiny. Yet, this simplistic tale tells a more complex story about finding one’s place in society and how sometimes one must step out of their assigned roles in order to find one’s greater purpose.

Aerin, the only child of the king of Damar, starts the book as a timid, sickly girl who has no real voice in her father’s court. As she slowly regains her strength, she secretly learns to fight with a sword, ride a horse, and create a recipe that will protect her from dragon fire. After secretly riding around killing some smaller dragons, she learns that Maur, the Black Dragon, has once again resurfaced.

This was an unexpected tale, because most stories would end with the heroine successfully killing the dragon. Yet this battle happens halfway through the novel; the greater threat is actually an army led by her uncle and Aerin’s struggle to regain her strength after her battle with the dragon. It was refreshing to read a book that took its time to chronicle the corruption of the kingdom and didn’t have the enemy be someone who could easily be dispatched. Its greater focus is on the consequences of the battles and how winning a fight doesn’t always mean that everything magically gets better.

The best parts of the book involve her growing bond with her father’s old lame warhorse, Talat. Saving him from a fate of being stuck in the stable’s forever, Aerin gives him a new sense of purpose as she begins to get the idea that she wants to kill the small dragons that are plaguing the countryside. Additionally, she attracts an army of wild cats and dogs throughout her quest, and her acceptance of her new animal friends makes her a fun heroine to follow.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the omniscient narration style. I wish it was solely from Aerin’s point of view, but the author frequently skips around to what the other characters are feeling or thinking during the middle of the chapter. While it didn’t impact the tale being told, it was a minor irritation in a beautifully told story.

This book is definitely to be recommended. The Hero and the Crown can easily be read by middle schoolers and adults alike, especially those who enjoy strong heroines and the fantasy genre.